Reaping a Return from Boomerangs

New academic research highlights some of the thinking -- and precautions -- involved in taking on returning employees, something experts say is a growing hiring trend.

Thursday, July 24, 2014
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In two academic studies, co-author and University of Illinois professor Brad Harris recently considered the phenomenon of boomerang employees - analyzing their motivation as well as performance results.

The first study, published in the summer issue of the journal Personnel Psychology, found boomerang employees tended to stay at their original job for shorter spans than employees who left and said they would never return.

"For the people who left and eventually returned, it was common for them to say they left because they had a plan to leave," Harris says. "They took time off to raise children or had a plan to work a few years and then get an MBA. They were also more likely to be surprised by another job offer.

"It seems like, for the 'never returners,' the dissatisfaction mounted over time."

The study -- prompted by inquiries from large-scale professional services firm -- led to a look at how well boomerangs perform.

In a working paper, Harris and co-writers Richard Gardner of Brigham Young University and Joseph Liu of the Georgia Institute of Technology reviewed performance data from the National Basketball Association to study re-employment results."The first paper told us how employees think," Harris says. "The second paper tells us which boomerang employees perform better. Previously, people assumed boomerangs are better because they know what they're getting into and expected to do."

Results show that performance -- both at the previous and current employer -- were the biggest predictors of reemployment performance.

"The second thing is considering how an employee leaves," Harris says. "We show that people who left of their own volition tend to perform better than those who didn't. The employee's image at that company was never violated at any point."

Hiring managers also should take into account the amount of time an employee has been away. The longer the employee's absence, the more likely the "fast-track" benefits of a re-hire may diminish, Harris says.

He adds that seeking out high-performing previous hires should be balanced with retention practices. The challenge, he says, is that you want to be open and opportunistic to the boomerang phenomenon, but you also want to focus on retaining your best employees "from the get-go."

Keith Caver says the trend toward re-hiring is growing.

"I would say, absolutely, it is more frequent and more generally accepted, especially by large organizations, for a number of reasons," says Caver, talent-management leader for Towers Watson in North America.

In post-recession growth, employees with critical skills, such as IT or engineering, are experiencing more confidence about their employment options. Also, many companies have "flattened," Caver says, meaning there are not as many lateral opportunities for high performers. And as the percentage of millennials in the workplace increases, so do shorter tenures, because that demographic leans toward increased mobility (as noted in a Forbes article and many studies).

"What happens, though, is sometimes individuals find maybe the grass is not greener, or they get a different skill and different level of responsibility and still return to an organization where they felt there were soaring before and can now add more value," Caver says.

The opportunities for HR leaders should still be tempered with a measure of caution, Caver says.

"No. 1, it really is about whom," Caver says. "I think organizations need to be very cognizant, very deliberate, about whom they bring back to an organization, because of the message it sends to those who are there. The decision to bring back someone who was a well-respected, solid performer - is always going to always bode well for the organization. It can become a phenomenal message. Conversely, bringing someone back who was not viewed as a valued or a team player obviously won't."

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Hiring managers should be trained to watch for unexplainable career bouncing, Caver says.

"Do your homework on those cases," Caver says. "However, at this point, recognize that there will continue to be a lot of mobility within organizations, and a stronger and more aligned organization will build overall attraction results. Those stronger companies will have fewer challenges in retaining associates, especially those in critical roles. When somebody comes back, be sure to really advocate and advertise it, because that can be a great commercial for your organization's value."

Ensuring that managers follow hiring processes also can help employers make better decisions on re-hires, says Kristin Anderson, a principal human capital consultant with TriNet, a cloud-based HR services provider headquartered in San Leandro, Calif.

"A hiring manager may experience a halo effect about a former employee -- and the reality is they might have been great in the positon they were in -- but you also have to fully look at the current, open position," she says. "Make sure that when a previous employee steps back in, hiring processes don't get thrown out, such as comparing them to other individuals. I have seen instances when a rehire was made and a current employee who wanted a growth opportunity is skipped over."

To keep an open-door policy, Anderson says organizations can encourage alumni groups or make efforts to stay in communication with former employees.

"Exit interviews are important, especially if they're a high performer," she says. "I encourage my clients to, if you can, avoid using products like Survey Monkey. Those have an anonymity that doesn't allow you to connect with that person. Ensure that your recruiting arm has a tickler file.

"Every six months or so, reach out, and make sure that former employees are added into blogs, or on the email list. Try to remain close. High-performing individuals also know other high-performing individuals, and you're building that network of contacts."

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