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

May 14, 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.

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