Q&A: All you need to know about boomerang employees

Last updated:
December 17, 2020
December 19, 2021
min read
Hagi Trinh
Table of contents

Thinking you have looked everywhere for candidates, yet your talent pool is drying up? You might have just missed one target group: your former employees, also known as “boomerang employees.”

Sourcing qualified candidates has always been a challenge. At times it can seem like all the people you may be looking for already have jobs (US unemployment is at an all-time low at 4.6%). The chance that you’ll get a reply from cold emailing/messaging/calling/texting passive candidates is almost nil.

Meanwhile, former employees might have learned new skills and be open to new opportunities… with you. This could save a considerable amount of time in the recruitment and onboarding process. Yet, there’s a significant stigma attached to these hires and perceived risks to take into consideration.

What do you need to know about hiring former employees? And what tools can help you smooth out the process?

We interviewed Brian Westfall, a senior market researcher for Software Advice, who has conducted research on boomerang employees. Brian has collected some important insights into employees who return which he shares with us in the Q&A and infographic below.

brian westfall on boomerang employees

What made you start your research on boomerang employees?

“Whenever a new buzzword enters the HR zeitgeist, there’s usually a good reason why. That’s certainly the case with boomerang employees. The days of an employee staying loyal with one employer for 30+ years of their career are dwindling. At the same time, the stigma surrounding bringing former employees back has all but disappeared.

All of these forces are coming together to put boomerangs on the rise, and recruiters need to pay attention. That’s what prompted the research.

Why should companies care about them now?

“The labor economy right now is not a great one for businesses. The U.S. unemployment rate hasn’t been this low in eight years, drastically limiting talent supply, but demand is at an all-time high—the number of job openings nationwide is approaching six million. Roles are staying vacant for more than a month, and the average cost per hire has skyrocketed to over $4,000. If recruiters want to fill roles with competent hires fast, they’re going to need to get creative.

That’s why companies should care about employees who return. They’re an unlikely talent source that can prove to be immensely beneficial in trying times.”

Employees left for a reason. Why would employers consider rehiring these candidates?

“While it’s true that boomerang employees carry an increased flight risk, they also offer a number of benefits over your average candidate. They cost less to recruit and bring with them some certainties in a sea of unknowns along with newly acquired skills and knowledge from other jobs. They also know the company culture, don’t require as much training and carry a reminder to other workers that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Take a risk on a boomerang, and you could be handsomely rewarded.

What role does HR tech play in nurturing and acquiring former employees?

“Because boomerang employees go on such a strange path, from current employee to non-candidate to passive candidate to active candidate, keeping track of this trajectory and doing the right nurturing at each step is key.

HR tech can help keep things organized. You can move the employee’s details from your HRIS to a variety of applicant tracking systems. From there, you can track your team’s interactions with that person and include them in the running for good fit roles when appropriate. You can also use software to keep boomerang employees in the know on company news and updates and ease them back into the company with a customized onboarding workflow.”

What is the most interesting case study or story on boomerang workers you have learned during the research?

“Recruiters’ experiences with boomerang employees really vary. Some workers who struggled during their original tenure thrive upon their return. Other boomerang employees who looked like a sure thing quit just as quickly the second time as they did originally.

By far the most popular and interesting example of a boomerang is Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs. He left the company on terrible terms in 1985 only to be brought back in 1997 to right the ship. I think we can agree that the decision paid off.”

Last but not least, what advice would you give to both companies and boomerang employees?

“Eighty percent of employees say their former employers don’t have a strategy in place to encourage their return. My advice to companies is to make one! You never know when a talented worker will want to come back. At the same time though, recruiters should not skip steps in the recruiting process. Just because a former employee is in the running does not mean they’re the best available candidate for the job. Do your due diligence.

boomerang employee quote from brian westfall

To employees, my advice is not to burn bridges. Life can take you unexpected places, and that includes putting you back in a company you thought you had left for good. Don’t let a grudge with a coworker get in the way. Still, it’s important to remember that employment is a two-way street. If you’re considering working again for a former employer, ask about any improvements that have been made since your original tenure. Ensure whatever caused you to leave in the first place – a terrible manager, poor work-life balance, etc. – has been addressed.”

With proper managing, hiring former employees could be a big win for you and your company. Don’t limit hiring boomerang employees to a mere tactic when the unemployment rate is low. Make it a permanent chapter in your recruitment strategy.

Dan Schawbel, the founder of WorkplaceTrends.com, explains why:

dan schawbel on boomerang employees

“Organizations should consider giving hiring priority to potential boomerang employees who had been a great cultural fit because they can reach a high productivity level quicker if rehired. In previous research we’ve done, we’ve found that Millennials are switching jobs every two years because they are searching for the job – and organization – of best fit. But this new study indicates that this younger generation is more likely to boomerang back when they’ve experienced other company cultures and realized what they’ve missed. We will see the boomerang employee trend continue in the future as more employees adopt a ‘free agent’ mentality and more organizations create a stronger alumni ecosystem.”

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