Everyone loves a good comeback. Muhammad Ali in 1970, the Spice Girls at the Olympics, Lesley in finance, last week.
While ‘Lesley’ might not return to a stadium of adoring fans, she will be one of an increasing number of employees receiving a warm welcome from a former employer.
With so much turbulence in the labour market in recent years, former employees have become an attractive talent pool for many organisations.
Building a pipeline for returning employees:
According to LinkedIn data, 4.5% of all hires by companies using its platform in 2021 were so-called boomerang employees, i.e. those returning to an old place of work, up from 3.9% in 2019, and it’s easy to see why.
They know the business and the role and can help to provide stability during times of change.
“Rehiring former employees is going to be a growing area for a lot of organisations,” predicts Dean Corbett, chief people officer at online training provider Avado. “We’re moving from The Great Resignation to the great return.”
What might prompt that return is difficult to say, but Jo Caine, managing director of recruitment firm Cathedral Appointments, says it’s not uncommon for employees’ priorities to change.
“While their former company may not have offered as much in terms of salary, their remuneration benefits may have been better, their social circle more robust, more flexibility may have been offered and the company may have overall been a much nicer place to be,” says Caine.
“The key phrase we hear from candidates re-entering an old workforce... is that money isn’t everything.”
There is plenty to be gained too for organisations that are prepared to welcome back their former employees. Research published last year in the Academy of Management Journal revealed that boomerangs outperformed new hires and were more likely to be promoted.
David Collings, professor of HRM at Dublin City University Business School and one of the authors of the study, says this is in large part because they already know ‘how to get things done’.
Collings cautions against making assumptions when onboarding returners though; the process should account for their previous experience but not over-rely on it. Alastair Woods, people analytics partner at PwC UK, agrees. He says that while certain elements of the recruitment process, such as reference gathering, can be sped up, HR shouldn’t be tempted to compress onboarding.
Woods says: “I think the biggest challenge for a returning employee is that the place looks the same, but the people and aspects of the culture have changed. There needs to be a bit of re-education on ways of working and HR should make sure that process is not skipped.”
But what should that process look like?
Bringing back the good
In the last six months, Avado has experienced such a noticeable increase in returning employees that it has revisited its onboarding process to ensure it is fit for purpose. Corbett views the onboarding experience as an opportunity to reaffirm the employee’s decision to return.
That process should take into consideration the reasons why someone left in the first place and what that felt like for them, says Corbett. While an exit interview is important intelligence to have, it is the entire offboarding experience that helps to shape the re-joining process.
“Now when someone leaves, we’re asking them what they think they contributed that we didn’t recognise, and what they, therefore, could bring back to us,” adds Corbett.
Avado also encourages departing employees to use their on-demand coaching service. Corbett’s view is that the learnings that arise from coaching and the support the employee receives can help to keep the door open for them to return and make for a smoother onboarding.
Top tips for onboarding former employees
Dean Corbett, chief people officer at Avado, advises three key principles to stick to:
- Have a process defined and co-created with a cross-section of your organisation
- Make the process human and individualised for the returner. Do that by talking to the individual and giving them the space of freedom to think and reflect on how things have changed
- Make it two-way. It should not be something that the business just gives you, it is something
that we do together. That will help to remind them why they came back
David Whitfield, CEO and co-founder of HR DataHub agrees that the best place to begin with onboarding is to look at the original departure. “Generally speaking, companies are pretty poor at recording the way that people leave the organisation,” says Whitfield.
“It’s a worry, to be honest, because it’s such powerful data to have. You need to understand why they left, but also what the motivation is to come back.”
He also suggests that where employers target boomerang parent employees, they might want to shape an onboarding process that allows those parents to ease their way back into the business if they are not ready to return full-time.
Recalling one case at Avado, Corbett says that it is important to acknowledge the experience and skills the person acquires during their time away from the organisation but take the opportunity to remind them why they loved working there in the first place.
“Our onboarding process is very much focused on the individual. In that particular situation, we asked, ‘what did you learn in the last six months that you think we would benefit from?’” says Corbett.
“The employee was taken aback by that question, but as far as we’re concerned, whether you were away for six months or six years, you will have taken something from that experience, and we’d love you to bring that in if you think it’s relevant. When you say that to a returning employee, they think: ‘I remember why I missed Avado’.”
Aideen Whelehan, founder of People & Work, agrees that an individualised approach to onboarding rejoiners will yield the best results, and HR shouldn’t be afraid to solicit feedback.
“That initial induction period is a real opportunity to reconnect and inspire that person to stay,” says Whelehan. “We have these programmes where we say to new employees: ‘We’re all like this’, but with rejoiners you can say ‘Actually, are we really like this?’”.
She argues that an organisation is more likely to experience loyalty and high performance from a returning employee when their input is sought out during onboarding, even more so when their feedback is acted upon.
While in some cases it will be teams or processes that have changed, for anyone that left the business prior to the pandemic, they may also be returning to a new type of office - or none at all.
As part of the onboarding process for returning employees, HR should be deliberate in connecting people, says Collings, citing research on virtual internships during the pandemic.
Some organisations pre-populated the calendars of new-hires with meetings with a broad range of people from across the organisation.
“For ‘boomerangs’, those meetings might be with people who hold some of those critical roles that are new to the organisation or people that are in areas of the business that have grown or developed since they were last employed there,” adds Collings.
“Those connections are really important when returning to a virtual or hybrid environment where we don’t necessarily have the same opportunity to meet people on the corridor that we would have had traditionally.”
Fostering connections and open dialogue are both vital in helping returning employees navigate the onboarding period. But Whelehan says we’ve seen this with maternity returners too and there are lessons that can be applied to boomerangs.
“There’s a balance to be struck there to ensure that you’re not eroding their confidence on their return,” comments Whelehan. “Because if someone has come back, and everything’s different – and hopefully better – then they could be left wondering what was wrong with the way it used to be.
“The role of HR is to support line managers in how to have those conversations and how they present those changes to
As organisations continue to adapt to events of the last few years, there are likely to be plenty more changes for staff – new and old – to navigate.
Regardless of how much knowledge an employee already has about an organisation, a clearly defined onboarding process and support mechanisms, will help to embed the employee quickly and, more importantly, it will help to ensure they stay.
This article was first published in the March/April 2022 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.