Why do people return to previous employers?

by Trudy Stedman

Person throwing boomerang

Whilst reading an article¹ where David Cameron was described as “the most high profile 'boomerang’ employee” following his return to the cabinet, I was reminded of a company that I worked with some years ago.

The nature of the industry sector that the company was in meant that ‘boomerang’ employees were quite common in one particular staff group, engineers, who were also the largest occupational group.

So what is a ‘boomerang’ employee?

A ‘boomerang’ employee is someone who returns to work for a former employer. As you can imagine there are pros and cons to rehiring in this situation. Key to making that decision is understanding why someone left. So, a robust exit interview process, more than simply a “tick box’ exercise, is a must.

In the case of the company mentioned above, the reason for leaving in 90% of cases was for more money. Yet, well over 50% of those who left returned within 1-3 years and on their return were able to negotiate higher salaries.

Key to making the decision to rehire an ex employee, is understanding why they left.

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This left the company with a situation that really couldn’t continue. The turnover costs were increasing, there was a high degree of wage drift and existing employees were becoming disgruntled at the higher salaries being offered to returning employees. Another issue facing the company at the time was the need to multi-skill engineers to enable them to have at least a basic knowledge of other engineering specialisms.

How to make it work for employers

As an interim HR Project Manager, I was tasked with leading a cross-function project team, which included engineers, to provide solutions. Our process:

  • Started with understanding the different roles and designed a role classification scheme
  • Next we developed a new grading structure (to replace the 20 + grades in use)
  • We then established baseline salaries for roles
  • Finally we linked this to a new competency framework (again developed by the team ) that reflected the different specialisms.

After doing the maths around turnover costs etc, the company took the decision that rewarding staff for increasing their knowledge and skills in different specialisms and demonstrating their application, was at worst cost neutral and at best cost saving!

A win:win situation; employees were able to increase their salaries without leaving and the company got a good return on their investment.

So why do some employees boomerang back?

However, there is more to this story because to go back to the title of this article, why did a significant number of those who left eventually return?

The reasons to me seem clear; the senior team were very visible and actively engaged with employees. There were regular two-way communication opportunities, both formal and informal and employees most definitely had a voice. The development of skills, cross-organisation collaboration, trying out new approaches and considered risk-taking were actively encouraged.

Another key factor was a very good leadership development and training programme that was compulsory for anyone moving into a leadership role. So, in essence the majority of those that left found that the grass was most definitely not greener on the other side!

This company still sits on my (very small) list of organisations that I would consider boomeranging back to.
¹ Is it a good idea to hire ‘boomerang’ employees? -Wendy Muirhead in People Management ( November 2023)

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Trudy Stedman

Trudy Stedman is a Principal Consultant & Business Manager at Beamans.

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This article is filed under: boomerang employees pay framework grading structure