UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

The Benefits of Boomerang Employees

March 24, 2011 By Heather Harreld

diversebusinesspeoplWhen valued employees announce their resignation, their employer is often sorry to see them go. And for those people, the company should keep its doors open for their return.

Not everyone quits a job by grabbing a beer and jumping onto the emergency exit slide as did the JetBlue flight attendant in a dramatic departure from the airline. Some people, when they announce their resignation, leave their employer sorry to see them go. And for those people, the company should keep its doors open for their return.

Organizational behavior professor Ben Rosen conducted a study aimed at helping companies reduce the expense of high turnover. He discovered that one cost-effective method was to tap into the resource of what he calls Boomerang employees, those valuable workers who leave the company but at some point are open to returning.

“When somebody quits, it’s pretty costly to an organization,” Rosen said. Not only does the company have to invest time and resources in hiring a replacement, but all the expense of the employee’s training, development and socialization walks out the door when the worker leaves.

“Organizations are starting to think, ‘If we could get some of those people to come back sometime down the road, that would be a huge savings for us,’ ” Rosen said.

While other studies examine what leads to turnover, Rosen and his the research team considered the implications for how the conditions of turnover lead to subsequent recruitment.

Using the contact database of employees who had left a large corporation that had had significant turnover in the years before the recession, Rosen and his team surveyed two groups:

  • “Alumni” who left the company and did not return (about 3,200 of the 19,000 former employees responded)
  • “Boomerangs” who left the company and were hired back (452 of 980 contacted answered the online survey)

They compared and contrasted the groups’ responses to find clues about who comes back, how and why.

Rehiring former employees has emerged as a purposeful approach to recruiting, and companies can benefit from managing their turnover. Because Boomerangs are familiar with the company’s culture, policies and practices, they need less recruiting, socialization (knowing the customer network and who gets what done in-house) and training than new hires. Having explored other options, Boomerangs might show more loyalty to the company when they return. And they bring new perspectives acquired in other work environments back with them, which can translate into increased social capital outside the firm.

Valuable employees might leave for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the company. They might receive an unexpected job offer for a promotion or pay increase elsewhere. Their spouse might be transferred, prompting the family to leave the area. They might seek greener pastures in a new organization or they might step off the fast track, accepting a position in another company for less pay in exchange for less stress and flexible hours. They might have planned to leave all along to start a family or return to school.

After a period of time, however, circumstances might change and rejoining their former firm could be a viable option. To be ready when that happens, companies can set the stage for future employment of valued former employees.

Rosen’s study explored ways to stay connected to those employees the firm would welcome back.

First, management must change its perception of the employee as being disloyal for moving on. Instead, the organization should recognize the potential of the soon-to-be-former employee as a future customer, a supplier or a Boomerang.

The company can stay in touch with valued former employees. It could host social events for them, send out the company newsletter to them and create a Facebook page for them.

“It’s a self-selecting group,” Rosen said. Typically, only people who have positive feelings toward the company respond to its attempts to reach out.

Because some employees leave to seek more lucrative career opportunities elsewhere, management can reduce turnover by keeping salaries competitive and being clear about the employee’s career trajectory in the company. Management should make sure employees understand that their next promotion will involve a sizeable raise, for instance.

But when an employee does move on, management can plant the seed for return through a feedback loop that captures an employee’s desire to return. Management should ask employees directly in exit interviews about their reasons for leaving and what would cause them to return. Management might learn about internal policies or practices that could be driving away valued employees, and then make changes to become more attractive to its best and brightest.

Even though valued employees know they are welcome to return, companies want to avoid being used as a “revolving door” by their former employees.

“Boomerangs are really smart negotiators,” Rosen said. “They know the upside of the company, and they know the dark side as well. They have a realistic idea of what they are returning to, and they negotiate hard to get terms that will make it more attractive to them to stay.”

From a long-term perspective, turnover might not be as detrimental as it seems on the surface. A new generation of employees, motivated by the desire to self-actualize and self-direct their lives and careers, move between organizations frequently to pursue new goals, responsibilities and rewards. They might represent a growing trend in the workplace. Ironically, valued employees who leave the earliest are most likely to return. Companies that recognize the benefit of good employees returning to the firm keep positive connections alive.

“If you want someone to come back,” Rosen said, “keep the door open.”

Key take aways:

  • Boomerang employees allow a company to recoup some of its investment in recruiting, training and developing staff.
  • Boomerang employees bring new perspectives acquired in other work environments and more social capital back to the firm, and tend to be more loyal upon their return than those who never left.
  • Boomerang employees are savvy negotiators in establishing the terms for their return.

Rosen is the Robert March and Mildred Borden Hanes Professor of Organizational Behavior.