Just a few years ago, using the axiom “time heals all wounds” and boomerang worker in the same sentence would seem so…contradictory. Today, many employees who have left a company to pursue opportunity elsewhere have shed the label “traitor” and have been ordained corporate “alumni.”
This shift in attitude has thrown a wrench into the recruiting mindset of many older managers. For Veterans (born before 1946) and Baby Boomers (1946–1964) the very notion of re-hiring an employee who quit their job for greener pastures was at best considered disloyal. Voluntarily leaving a good-paying steady job placed a permanent blemish on a resume and tattooed the employee as a job-hopper, a fate worse than death in the minds of a hiring manager. Even women who left the workforce to give birth to or raise a child were deemed unfit to rehire. “What would stop them from doing it again?” asked managers.
But that was then and this is now. It is way past the time when the Machiavellian temptation to prove a point is a rational approach to hiring and managing talent. The world has changed. The number of employees who remain loyal to a single organization throughout their lifetimes and vice verse is shrinking. Job hopping has been transformed from a character flaw to a career plan. Life-long employment died with Generation X. The free-agent generation changed everything. Building a portable career became more important than getting a gold watch at retirement. And Generation Y took job hopping one step further. If job hopping became a norm for Gen X, then career hopping will be the vehicle for Generation Y to build what they are defining as parallel careers.
But hiring a boomerang worker isn’t only about managing a multi-generation workforce. Hiring a boomerang employee has one of the highest returns on recruiting investment an employer can ask for. The cost to re-hire a boomerang employee has been reported to be one-third to two-third the cost of hiring a “virgin” employee. Little time or effort must be invested in getting to know the candidate. Boomerangs can be valuable to an organization because they understand the culture. They have a history with the business, but bring a fresh perspective from the outside. During their absence, there is a good chance that boomerangs have learned new skills and strategies, achieving success in a different setting. (If they haven’t been successful, why bring them back?) They likely have made new connections and expanded their network.
But hiring boomerang employees shouldn’t be the strategy of choice because it’s cheap and easy. The decision to re-hire an employee should be based on good job fit — that the employee has the right skills for the right job. Not every employee who voluntarily quit or was “dislocated” is a good candidate for re-hire. If anyone was fired or forced out, they should not be on the priority list, unless of course the person or persons who forced them out turned out to be the cause of the problem and not the solution.
For some employees, you should just count your blessings they’re gone. In addition, managers should not assume that just because someone doesn’t leave an organization that they are loyal. It could simply mean they don’t have any place to go!
It is illogical to assume in an era where specific skills are increasingly scarce that separation from an organization has anything to do with loyalty. Individuals with the most valuable skills are constantly offered opportunities, and should a valued employee accept one, it is as much the manager’s fault for failing to retain the employee as it is the employee’s fault for taking advantage of market conditions. Besides, the shift from long-term employment to project work fits the lifestyle of highly skilled Generation X and Generation Y who demand flexible work arrangements and growth opportunities.
The successful re-hiring of a boomerang employee also doesn’t stop with the extension and acceptance of a job offer. Hiring boomerangs can be a bit political. The re-integration of a boomerang is a path fraught with landmines. The players might have changed between the time that the employee left and returned. Interpersonal relationships might have changed too. And dynamics might be tense if the boomerang leapfrogged over an incumbent employee, who might have felt he or she deserved a crack at the job.
Without question, managers need to get over their heartbreak and pride when it comes to re-hiring employees. Rehiring former employees who have the skills you need is not only the right thing to do, it’s good for business.