Boomerang Employees: Why Employees Are Coming Back
The Great Resignation has seen employees quit in droves. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.4 million Americans left or changed jobs in April, representing nearly 3% of the total workforce. The data also shows demand for workers remains at near-record highs, with 11.4 million job openings. Both figures are in line with previous months, stretching back for nearly a year. And while today's jobs report shows a dip in job openings, it still tops 11.3 million open jobs.
Amid a prolonged hiring crisis, squeezed employers can tap into a seemingly unlikely source of labor: boomerang employees, aka workers who’ve previously quit.
“Employees often quit their job not because they hate it, but because they dislike one or two aspects of it,” said Anthony Klotz, associate professor at University of College London’s School of Management. “This can lead to regret when they start a new job and realize that it has a different set of downsides, and the employee is no happier (or even less happy) at their new company.”
Klotz, formerly of Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, accurately predicted the Great Resignation in May 2021. When workers began quitting in record numbers, he foresaw the next labor market trend: ‘The Great Regret.’ Research on resignations shows that while employees report experiencing relief and excitement after handing in their notice, they soon feel nostalgia and regret once that initial wave of euphoria fades.
The sheer volume of quits we’ve seen, therefore, dictates that a high number of workers are now likely reporting sentiments of regret in their new roles. But, as luck would have it, their old employer is struggling to fill vacancies: enter the boomerang employee.
Why Rehiring Makes Sense
“The big advantage for both the returning worker and the organization is that they know one another — the good and the bad,” said Klotz.
Compared to normal new starters, boomerang workers can hit the ground running. They require less onboarding — if at all — and know the ins and outs of their company, saving employers time and costs. Presumably, they come back with more experience too, meaning they return as a stronger employee.
“Imagine an employee who left to launch an entrepreneurial firm, get a Master’s degree or work in a foreign country,” said Klotz. “In these cases, employees may be able to provide higher value to the company as a result of what they did or learned during their time away.”
Rehiring also takes the sting out of lengthy recruiting processes, a major boon given the tight labor market. “It’s notoriously difficult to select the right employee, because interviews and other ways of selecting people do a poor job of predicting whether they’ll perform well at the job or enjoy working for the company,” added Klotz. “With boomerang employees, the company has an HR file of that employee’s performance history: the guesswork is gone.”
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The Rise of the Returnee
Given it’s seemingly a win-win for employer and employee, it’s little surprise that rehiring is rising. But the practice is nothing new. According to LinkedIn data, boomerangs accounted for 4.3% of all new hires in the U.S. last year, up from 3.9% over the same period in 2019.
Compared to historic LinkedIn data, however, there has been a noticeable uptick. In 2010, less than 2% of all hires were boomerangs. Employees are not only boomeranging more frequently, but they’re doing so more quickly: it took just 17.3 months for an U.S. employee to return to an old employer in 2021, versus 21.8 months in 2010. In some industries that have experienced the highest quits, such as arts and recreation, boomeranging is now happening within the same year.
Robyn Hopper, HR advisor at Society for Human Resource Management, said it makes sense that the pandemic has caused a spike in rehiring. “There were more reasons to quit than ever before, such as homeschooling as a result of lockdown. It’s not that people necessarily left roles because they wanted to, but because they had to; bringing these workers back can make sense.”
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Whereas arts and recreation and education have seen higher rates of boomeranging than the national average, LinkedIn data shows industries like manufacturing (3.8%); financial services (3.4%); and tech, information and media (3.7%) have seen fewer returning employees.
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The Risks and Rewards of Boomerang Employees
The risks of being a boomerang are fairly low for the employee, said Klotz, but higher for the organization. For one, workers will likely return on a higher salary or more senior position than when they left, potentially demotivating colleagues. “If stayers aren't equally compensated, it can send the unintended signal that the best way to get a big raise is to leave and then return.”
And if an employee leaves due to dissatisfaction with some aspect of the workplace that hasn’t been addressed, then their return could be short-lived. Klotz added that as a result of these potential downsides, companies will likely only consider bringing back those who were good performers and left without burning bridges.
Finding the right boomerang often comes down to their initial departure, said Hopper. She believes exit interviews can help pinpoint the right circumstances for a departing worker to return. “Doing HR due diligence, and understanding why someone has left, can help bring employees back in the future.”
As for contacting a boomerang employee, Hopper advises employers to initially approach them in the same way as a regular candidate. “If your hiring team happens to see that person’s resume or application, you can contact them — it’s as simple as that. If there’s a vacancy, and the worker left on good terms, then the conversation will likely not be difficult: ‘We’ve just had this opening, it’d be great to have you back.’”
Although the employer risks the boomerang employee swiftly departing again, Hopper points out that companies risk that with any hire. In many instances, the positives vastly outweigh the negatives.
“Workers who seek to return to their old jobs after taking a break for family, school or mental health reasons are likely simply ready to get back to work at a place they know and like,” said Klotz. “And it’s completely natural for an employee to pine for their old job back if the circumstances of why they left have changed.”
In these cases, employees benefit from having a shift in perspective and subsequent pay rise; employers benefit from welcoming back a worker who has returned more experienced and savvy. “From a positive standpoint, this can lead to an employee returning with a deeper sense of gratitude toward the company, and first-hand knowledge that the grass isn't greener on the other side of the employment fence,” said Klotz.