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Boomerangs: The Strategic Process of Rehiring Your Former Employees, Part 1

by May 15, 2006

Boomerang efforts have one of the highest ROIs in recruiting. When you take the time to examine the profile of new hires who produce the best on-the-job performance, invariably previous employees returning to the organization, or “boomerangs,” make the list. Boomerang is a term that was coined to identify top performing “corporate alumni” who are either purposely targeted and brought back into the organization, or who return voluntarily after some absence from the organization.

Boomerang recruitment is a high ROI activity, primarily because the cost per hire is very low and little time or effort must be invested in getting to know the candidate. While boomerangs make great hires, they also empower or embolden retention efforts by exposing employees at risk of attrition to first-hand accounts of life outside the organization and the selling points of what brought them back. Boomerangs are highly valuable to an organization not just because they bring back great stories, but also because they bring a fresh perspective, yet one capable of embedding years of history. By stepping out of the organization, there is a good chance that boomerangs have learned new skills and strategies that are applicable or valuable in redesigning and improving your approaches. They can also bring back valuable information about how a competitor does business and the strengths and weaknesses inherent to their approach. Having been exposed to an organization doing something successful a different way, boomerangs can recognize what is better about your approach and what can be improved. In short, these are A++ candidates who deserve special treatment.

Beware of Antiquated Thinking!

Hiring boomerangs can be political. A number of managers hold the antiquated notion that boomerangs are traitors and should not be allowed to return. This notion is silly because the job world has changed, and the number of employees who remain loyal to a single organization throughout their lifetimes is both extremely limited and suspect in nature. It is also illogical to assume in an era where specific skills are increasingly more valuable on a project versus a long-term basis 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. In addition, managers should not assume that just because someone doesn?t leave an organization that they are loyal. It could simply mean he or she has few or no opportunities! Managers need to get over it; rehiring former employees is quite common in sports and no one ever holds a grudge there.

Best Practice Firms

Although the hiring of boomerangs using a formal process is not widespread, there are several firms that have implemented boomerang programs. Consulting firms like McKinsey, Ernst & Young, Bain & Co, and Deloitte have long nurtured the relationship between the firm and its alumni. Other firms like HP and Gensler (who have been written-up for having boomerang rates as high as 12%) have also been successful in building alumni programs and re-recruiting boomerangs. However, the best practice leader in leveraging this approach based on my observations is management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. It has gone the extra step and dedicated resources to a unique team known as the “comeback kids” that has proven very successful in getting former employees to return.

Reasons for Hiring Boomerangs or Corporate Alumni

There are numerous reasons why you should develop a formal effort to re-recruit top employees who left your firm. Some of them include:

  • Fast hire. Boomerangs offer an opportunity to acquire a top person quickly (the search and the assessment take little time).
  • Known skills. Because they are former employees with years of performance appraisals, you know in advance what skills and competencies you are obtaining.
  • Up to speed quickly. Because they know the organization and its culture, they are likely to get up to speed faster than traditional new hires who have to learn an entirely new set of politics, culture, and processes.
  • Low failure rate. They have a lower chance of failing because they have already adapted to the culture and you already know their performance capabilities and their ability to produce results (especially if they quit your firm recently).
  • Browngrassers. You might find that after seeing the “color of the grass” on the other side that they are desirable because they will not likely leave again. The added benefit alluded to earlier is that they can help in the retention effort because they can tell stories to others about life on the outside.
  • Competitive intelligence. They can provide competitive intelligence, new ideas, and a fresh perspective from their previous firms.
  • A chain reaction. They often bring back other alumni with them when they come, especially after the message spreads that you are welcoming back those who left.
  • Building community. Alumni programs help build a sense of a long-term community among employees because even when you leave, employees know they can maintain a relationship with the firm.
  • PR value. A high return rate might improve image and secure good PR in the industry and community.

Other Benefits

Even if the target people do not return, maintaining the relationship may bring many other benefits that include:

  • Increased probability that they will purchase goods or services from your organization.
  • Referral of potential customers.
  • Increased probability of building strategic alliances with their new organization.
  • Referral of potential new hires.

Targets to Approach

Boomerang programs should not target every former employee. If, for example, Homer Simpson quits, count your blessings, and let him go. In addition, anyone who was fired or forced out should not be on the priority list, unless of course whoever forced him or her out has been forced out himself! Do not put a limit on the number of years that a former employee can be gone, but those who have left within the last two years are the most likely to understand your culture and situation. Some categories of former employees to target should include:

  • Top performers who voluntarily left.
  • Top performers who were in key positions.
  • Top performers with key skills, contacts, or experience.
  • Retirees who may not have found retirement to be all it was cracked up to be.
  • Top finalists who accepted another job. These people can be called in the first week of their new jobs and after three months in order to see if they made a mistake (buyer’s remorse). This might seem silly, but if you think about it, how many jobs have you taken where you realize the first day that it was a mistake?
  • Long-term consultants or contractors. Although they technically were not employees, if you had individuals who performed well for a long period time, you might consider bringing them back as contractors again or even as employees.
  • Promising interns who failed to return.

Expect Some Initial Resistance

Don’t expect every ex-employee to respond positively on your initial call. You might find some resistance on the part of former employees because they think that you hate them for leaving. As a result, it’s critical that you start any conversation with a potential boomerang with the statement “we understand why you left and we hold no animosity toward you.” There’s also another factor to consider. Because the number one reason individuals quit a job is because their managers are jerks, realize upfront that you need to tell all individuals who left for that reason that their former managers/adversaries are either no longer there or that they will not have any contact with them. It turns out that quite a few former employees will return because they love the firm, but very few will return in any proximity to the manager who caused them enough grief to force them out.

Other Possible Problems with Boomerang Efforts

As with all recruiting programs, boomerang programs have some possible problems that include:

  • Former employees having a “dream memory” of the firm (or it could have changed), and as a result, they will become disenchanted upon return.
  • Current employees becoming jealous or resentful when boomerangs are hired back at significantly higher pay or job level than similar individuals who remained with the firm.
  • Boomerangs might come back to retire in the job.
  • A long period away could result in the boomerang having changed so much that you need to reassess him or her before any offer to return is made.
  • Sometimes layoffs or partings were so negative, the best you can do is neutralize their feelings but they will never return.
  • Firms don’t want to build the perception that they are desperate.
  • It requires a long-term view and a vision of sales and learning as well as recruiting. Most recruiters (and some managers) do not share that broad vision.
  • Proving the benefits (like the increased image (perception of corporate alumni toward their former firm) and the decrease in bad mouthing) may be difficult to do if your HR or recruiting department is weak in the metrics area.
  • Traditional HR people often fail to realize that in boom times, the scope of whom they reconsider may need to expand to include even average performers who left.

Next week In part two of this series, I will discuss the steps required to build a world-class boomerang/alumni program.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Pankaj Khanna

    I have been following John’s articles for a long time now and I should say that he scores with his lucid & simplistic style.And the same is the case with Boomerangs.

    I agree that not only is the ROI high,in many cases the spinoffs with such hires is incalculable.Coincidentally,we have been discussing internally within our organisation on the process/activities which we need to evolve to reach out to our alumni.
    More often than not,the first time boomerangs show more loyalty when compared to others.

    Pankaj Khanna

  • Dr. John Sullivan

    Pankaj

    Thanks for reading.

    How is this for bold. A firm issued a press release on how they are adopting a new Boomerang strategy (I have not worked with them). That’s branding!

    John

    ?Boomerangs? provide biggest return on investment
    In a hot job market, some firms like Radical are
    embracing ex-employees who sought greener pastures

    May XX, 2006 (Vancouver) ? In the war for talent, there are no final good-byes.

    Radical Entertainment is ensuring potential ?boomerangs? know the door is never closed because they may come back knocking. ?Boomerang? is a recently coined HR term that describes top-performing, ex-employees who are either purposely targeted and brought back, or return on their own volition.

    Radical is a leader in retention best-practices and recognized as one of the top places to work in Canada. Both are big reasons why the Vancouver firm has reportedly one of the lowest employee attrition rates in the video-game industry. However, in a hot job market, an employee constantly faces the lure of more money, a more senior role or a posting presenting a unique opportunity. The ?boomerang trend? is fuelled by employees taking advantage of current market conditions, say leading HR experts.

    Boomerang recruitment is also seen as a high return-on-investment activity because little effort must be spent in getting to know the candidate, says Dr. John Sullivan, a renown HR consultant and author, in a recent column on erexchange.com As well, boomerangs bring new skills and strategies on top of known competencies, states Sullivan, a Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley consultant who Fast Company magazine calls the ‘Michael Jordan of Hiring.?

    Radical technical project manager Katrina Archer, for example, left Radical to join her dream company, Pixar, where she absorbed both new work experience and the studio?s creative culture. However, after three years at Pixar?s California studio, Archer wanted to return to Radical. Archer was welcomed back with open arms, says Leah Rubin, Vice President, Human Resources, Radical.

    Archer even arranged to job-share her position with a female colleague ? part of Radical?s ongoing accommodation to work-life balance.

    ?Sometimes, as with Katrina?s Pixar opportunity, we?re just as excited as the employee when we learn where they?re headed, says Rubin. ?Not only because it?s a unique once-in-a-lifetime chance, but there?s the potential for the person to return to Radical with fantastic new experience and skills.?

    Archer?s exit and re-entry is not unique. Other employees may be drawn to the opportunity to live and work overseas. Others may seek the promise of more money or an immediate senior position that Radical can not immediately accommodate.

    ?There?s the saying, ?The grass is always greener on the other side.? However, we hear from those who left — especially if making top dollar was their sole motivation — that they?ve soon learned the greener pasture was at Radical,? says Rubin.

    The situation provides many happy returns for both Radical and the employee. Returning talent come with not only potentially new experience, but a greater appreciation of Radical?s work environment. For Radical, it?s a validation they?re a leader in treating talent well.

    Sullivan agrees in his two-part online column, The Strategic Process of Rehiring Your Former Employees: How to develop boomerang and corporate alumni programs.

    ?Boomerangs make great hires because they strengthen retention efforts by exposing employees at risk of attrition to first-hand accounts of life outside the organization and the selling points of what brought them back,? he writes.

    The hiring of boomerangs using a formal process is not widespread. Sullivan lists only a handful in his column. However, Radical?s exit interviews always underline potential re-entry.

    ?We?re always sorry to lose good talent — that?s why we commit so intensively to retention programs. We stress the door is always open, they?re leaving as a friend of Radical, and we hope they return one day,? says Rubin.

    Of course, Radical?s confident strategy only works when you?re recognized as one of the best places to work in Canada. Radical is ranked among ?Canada?s Top 10 Employers for Young People,? ?Canada?s Top 100 Employers,? and ?B.C.?s Top 20 Employers? by Mediacorp Canada Inc. Radical is also continually rated as one of the best places to work in B.C. (#1 in 2002, #3 in 2004 ), according to BC Business magazine and Watson Wyatt.

    Radical also employs a Manager of Retention, believed to be the only senior position in the video-game industry dedicated exclusively to retention, making sure employees stay happy ? and stay put.

    Radical?s Manager of Retention is dedicated to developing career-pathing, monitoring wellness and work-life balances, establishing training and development opportunities and providing daily retention tips to company managers The initiative also highlights that moving your career forward doesn?t necessarily mean climbing the corporate ladder.

    ‘Career progression doesn?t always have to be stepping up ? it can be a broadening of your skill set and simply taking on more within the context of your current role,’ says Rubin. ‘While we might not have 40 technical director positions, we have a lot of things we need to get done with smaller teams so the opportunity to expand your own role is great.?

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