Employers are searching every nook and cranny for qualified workers as unemployment drops to record low levels and workers become more choosy about where and how they spend their time.

Increasingly, employers are turning to where they’ve succeeded before — to workers who left the company but would be interested in coming back. These so-called “boomerang” workers might be employees who were laid off during the pandemic, people who moved to another company for a promotion or different opportunities, or retirees who still want to contribute their talents.

Such workers may be interested in returning when their former positions are open again, when a boss they disliked has left or when the company has begun allowing employees to work remotely. More than a few boomerangs have also re-evaluated what’s important to them and discovered that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Companies used to resist rehiring workers. But that attitude toward boomerangs is changing, as people are able to stay connected with former co-workers through social media, as old ideas of company loyalty fade and as workers realize the importance of leaving an employer on good terms, said Kristen Pozen, practice leader at the Duffy Group, a Phoenix-based recruiting firm.

“It really has to do with how tight the labor market is right now and how much people are leaving their jobs,” Pozen said. “There are so many vacancies, and employers are really struggling, never mind that the economy is improving, productivity is improving and more jobs are needed.”

HR professionals may not regularly track the number of boomerang workers in their organizations, but recent surveys reflect the trend. LinkedIn found that 4.5% of new hires in companies on its site in 2021 were boomerangs, up from 3.9% in 2019. Resume Builder found that 20% of retirees it surveyed in September 2021 said previous employers had reached out and asked them to return.

In Jeanette Cajide’s case, her previous company had grown to the point where the job she wanted to create for herself was finally available. She had joined Dallas-based Dialexa, a technology research and design business, when it was a startup and led its business development and marketing.

She eventually tired of too many networking events and too few resources and left the company to become more of a generalist. Four years later, however, one of Dialexa’s co-founders lured her back.

Cajide said she rejoined the organization because she wanted to be around people who shared her vision of how technology can transform industries, and she wanted to be with a company building that technology. “It’s nice to be somewhere where I can be truly myself,” she said. “They know my work, and they know my personality quirks. It’s like coming home.”

Advantages and Potential Pitfalls

Hiring a boomerang has several advantages, Pozen and others say.

Such workers bring industry and institutional knowledge and experience to the job, including the new skills and training they acquired while at another company. Having experienced other workplaces, boomerangs may be more dedicated to and appreciative of their former employer than they were before. In cases where clients followed boomerangs to their new companies, those clients may well follow the boomerang back. And boomerangs can be a good fit when a company needs to fill a position quickly.

“This is somebody who is probably familiar with the culture, so if they were a culture fit to begin with, you feel like that box is checked,” Pozen said. “Hopefully you’re rehiring them because you know their work ethic and the quality of their work already, so those are known commodities.”

Audacious Studios, a group of marketing and customer experience agencies in Tempe, Ariz., counts three boomerangs among its nearly 70 employees. “We wouldn’t invite them to interview back or entertain [the possibility of rehiring them] if they reached out to us, if we didn’t already feel like they were superstars in the past and had shown that and demonstrated those skill sets,” said Tara Bethell, vice president of talent at Audacious Studios. “We definitely expect them to jump into the deep end pretty quick.”

With boomerangs, the company followed the same three-step interview process it uses for internal and external candidates, Bethell said.

It helped ensure the boomerangs know how the culture has shifted and teams have restructured since they left, and it introduced them to leaders and co-workers who have joined the company since their departure.

With all of these benefits, though, come potential downsides.

The reaction of co-workers who stuck with a company through thick and thin could become an HR issue, though not a legal impediment to hiring boomerangs, said James Paul, a St. Louis-based attorney with labor and employment law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart P.C. He’s seen situations in which co-workers begrudge the rehiring or think it’s unfair.

“Even if some people in the organization want Joe or Mary back as a boomerang employee, there could be co-workers or others that kind of feel betrayed or lose trust in somebody when all of a sudden Joe or Mary comes after they previously left but now they’re being praised or treated like heroes or superstars even though they left,” he said.

Bethell agrees that the morale of current staffers is important to consider when bringing in a boomerang at a higher level. In those cases, she said, the company makes sure it communicates to the team the boomerang’s skill sets and what he or she brings to the job.

Hiring boomerangs who had left for other jobs also might increase the risk that a company will lose existing workers. “What does that really make the other people in the company think? ‘Hmm, I guess my company is receptive for me to leave, and when I come back maybe I can get paid more, I can have a higher title,’ ” Pozen said. “The rumor mill starts to grow, especially if it’s a smaller company where there isn’t a lot of upward growth.”

Bringing back a worker who didn’t fit with the company’s culture or wasn’t well-liked by the rest of the team might backfire if it sends other employees heading for the exits, Pozen said.

Rehiring someone who was fired or who burned their bridges can set a bad precedent, she added. And, companies and boomerang workers sometimes have different expectations regarding benefits and work practices.

Workers might expect their previous years of service to count toward the amount of vacation time or paid time off they receive in their new go-round. Or they may expect to be able to work remotely when others are being ordered back to the office.

Companies also could worry that, since boomerangs left once, they might leave again. Signing or retention bonuses might be the key to keeping boomerangs on board for the longer term.

Changes in the company culture, chain of command, use of technology or policies on remote work might have occurred since the boomerang left. The changes might come as a surprise to the returning worker. That could even mean a boomerang might struggle to learn new skills or form new relationships.

For her part, Cajide found it hard to return to a company that she’d known as a startup but that now has more than 250 employees. Thinking of it as a brand-new company has helped her avoid stepping on people’s toes, she said. She also worked to gain co-workers’ trust again and enjoys the autonomy and challenges her new manager offers her.

As an attorney, Paul has seen hiring boomerangs produce negative results, but boomerangs are still very often good hires, when the organization proceeds through the hiring process carefully, he said.

“I’ve seen just as many [boomerang hires] that work out, as long as everybody does it with eyes open and makes sure they’re on the same page.”

Boomerang Hiring Tips

  • Share your hiring intentions. Communication with the boomerang’s would-be colleagues, managers and others up the chain of command is crucial before, during and after any hiring.
  • Develop a policy for when and how to hire boomerangs so everyone is treated consistently. Policies could include: checking in with employees who remember the potential hire; evaluating the level of salary, title and responsibilities a boomerang can expect; and deciding whether to offer signing or retention bonuses. Some companies use a “bridging” policy that spells out when a boomerang’s previous years of service can be added to their new stint with the company. Boomerangs who have started collecting Social Security may want their employment agreements to include limits on their hours or earnings to minimize any tax consequences.
  • Establish expectations. Job offers should be made in writing to help ensure the company and the boomerang worker have the same expectations. That document should be specific as to what is expected and not expected of the employee, as well as what is new and different about how the company operates now.
  • Stick to the hiring process. Don’t take shortcuts. Use the same practices in hiring boomerangs that you use in hiring brand new employees, both to lessen the chance of giving the boomerang preferential treatment and of causing resentment among co-workers. Having them attend the same orientation sessions as new hires can refresh boomerangs’ memories regarding company policies and introduce them to new ones. Holding them to the same or even a more rigorous schedule for performance evaluations as you hold new hires also helps ensure equity.
  • Check the terms of any previous severance package, pension plan or union agreement that might limit the company’s ability to rehire a worker. In those cases, both parties may be able to waive or change the terms of the earlier deal.

Related WorldatWork Resources
Supreme Court Sides with Starbucks in Unionization Case
Commuting Considerations Could Be Key in RTO
Creating Equity for Your LGBTQ+ Workforce: A Q&A with a Corporate VP
Related WorldatWork Courses
Committing to Pay Equity
Performing a Pay Equity Analysis
Pay Equity Course Series