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The Boomerang Manager

August 22, 2022 Talent Management
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

The boomerang effect is being felt throughout the labor market. Boomerang employees are people who voluntarily leave their job for a role they perceive to be better, who ultimately return to the previous employer. Andrea Derler and I wrote last month about what causes boomerang employees to leave new jobs. If you haven’t read that article, please do. It sets the stage for this month’s discussion, which focuses specifically on managers.

The basic premise of all boomerang employees still applies to those in managerial roles.

Employees exit as they are seeking something they can’t find.

Employee boomerang as they are seeking something they left behind.

We were not surprised when the research revealed that individual contributors often leave to become people managers. What did surprise us was the vulnerability of people managers who are new to organizations. Turns out that people managers were more susceptible to the boomerang effect than individual contributors.

As we covered in our first article, relationships are the single most compelling reason that employees return to their previous organization. Employees vote with their feet on the importance of feeling a sense of connection to their colleagues, their employer and the purpose of the organization. Even when employees leave for tangible reasons like promotions, raises and fresh experiences, they still reference the emotions that are associated with their legacy organizations.

So how can businesses retain recently hired people managers? While the guidance below applies to all people managers, those colleagues who have previously led teams will have a clear perspective about what they want and need, grounded in their past experiences.

Here’s our guidance on retaining new people managers and avoiding the boomerang effect: 

Make the Implicit Explicit

It’s easy to assume that new managers can figure out the unspoken norms of a culture on their own. In reality, they lack the organizational context for what they are seeing and experiencing. Imagine planting a new tree in the dark and expecting it to grow — it’s just not going to happen. Take the time to talk about the unwritten norms that everyone else knows. Those behavioral norms are the things that make you feel like you are part of the in-group. They're often the small actions like starting meetings on time, being on camera for virtual meetings, not sending emails over the weekend, taking new employees to lunch on day one, or not interrupting others who are talking. These are all examples of small yet important behaviors that signal how to become part of the team. As a people manager, they also demonstrate how to be a role model for others.

Related Article: 5 Ways to Increase Employee Retention

Set Realistic Expectations

When hiring an experienced people manager, there’s often great comfort in knowing they bring people management skills to the role. While that is true, they’ve not done it in their new environment before. The research on engagement shows that the first 90 days are critical, as colleagues not only want to prove themselves to their new employer, but they also want to prove to themselves that they’ve made the right career decision. Phrases like “hit the ground running” may signal a vote of confidence, but those words also might trigger a sense of unrealistic expectations. Be purposeful in defining progressive goals and the associated timeline for getting new managers up to speed. First and foremost, those goals should include getting to know their team, their peers and learning the “rules of the road” as a people leader in their new environment.

Align With Their Manager

Without exaggeration, the worst example of a people manager I ever directly experienced offered the following guidance when I asked for help: “Figure it out for yourself — that’s why we hired you.” I was stunned. How in the world did this individual get to be leader of people? Never mind — don’t answer that.

In the early days of a new hire, employees typically try to make their managers happy. People managers often lean into this even more, as they personally know how much they appreciate that commitment from their own teams. Weekly 1:1 touchpoints are useful. So is clarity around decision rights — knowing the guardrails for when one can say yes or no. Probably most important is building a sense of trust, which then fosters the psychological safety for the new manager to share both the good news and the bad without fear of reprisal.

Related Article: When the Workforce and Jerkforce Collide

Demonstrate Empathy

People managers have double duty in this space. They must cope with their own need for empathy, and at the same time, demonstrate empathy for those around them. People managers typically have lots of questions during their first year about how to act in a wide array of settings. Pairing the new hire with an experienced people manager is an effective strategy for vetting ideas and creating a safe space to talk when they are feeling uncertain, confused or overwhelmed. There’s no substitute for early feedback about both successes and needed adjustments within their new culture. It’s one of the kindest things you can do for new people managers, and open feedback has the bonus of demonstrating what’s expected of them as a positive people manager.

Create Connectedness

Last and absolutely not least, it’s essential to foster a sense of belonging. The well-worn phrase “we’re a relationship-based company” is not enough. Build the list (in priority order) of the essential people they need to meet. Introduce them to colleagues, invite them to meetings to witness how decisions are made, place them on projects that will give them visibility into the organization — not only the formal structures, but the dynamics and politics that they will encounter. People exit for many reasons, but the #1 reason people stay is great relationships and the resulting sense of belonging.

Related Article: Why Leaders Are Leaving

Andrea Derler, principal, research and value, Visier
Andrea Derler, PhD, is Visier's principal of research and value. Her contributions have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Chief Learning Officer, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and more. 

Our recent research of talent trends in the Visier Community Data showed that almost one third of new hires in the past three years were boomerang employees. Additionally, we found that more managers than individual contributors become boomerang employees, and the number of individuals in management positions who returned to a former employer has gone up in the past year (see figure below).

boomerang employees by the numbers, 2022
PHOTO: Visier

While 40% of manager boomerangs used to be individual contributors at resignation and re-entered the organization in a managerial role, the majority (60%) of them were in a managerial role at the time of resignation.

Organizations that are hiring manager-level employees should therefore plan onboarding and leadership transitions carefully so not to lose new manager hires shortly after they started the new job, and be aware that managers may have stronger bonds and social networks at their previous company to return to.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.

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