By Charlie Wells
Forget return to office. In this economy, many employees are returning to previous employers, breaking taboos about workplace loyalty and bucking assumptions about the so-called Great Resignation.
Their numbers are up. In the US in the first quarter of this year, 4.2% of all new hires for companies that advertised jobs on LinkedIn were boomerangs, compared to 3.3% in 2019, the social-media firm said.
Their reasons for returning are varied. What’s more, their returns are being brandished by firms large and small, who are boasting everywhere from social media to Slack that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
So-called “boomerang employees” embody the economic ambiguity of the moment. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the US labor market added 528,000 jobs in July, beating forecasts more than twofold. Yet just the week prior, data showed that the US economy shrank for a second straight quarter, amplifying concerns about a recession.
All the while, employees and employers are locked in a standoff over perks, pay, remote policies and the very meaning of work itself.
“I just realized that startups don’t really offer a lot of family benefits that larger companies do,” said Rachel Bentley, a 31-year-old from Austin, Texas, who recently boomeranged back to Duo, a two-factor authentication company owned by Cisco Systems Inc., after stints at Microsoft Corp. and a smaller startup she joined in 2021.
It was a mix of cultural comfort, pay and concern about the economy that drew Bentley back to Duo, whose employees she stayed in touch with on Slack even after she left the firm. It paid off: Bentley says by returning, she was not only able to rejoin colleagues she loves, but also double her pay.
Others are doing the same, particularly at a moment when career risks — such as joining a startup in a new industry — may begin to lose their appeal. Although the job market is still strong, firms that once seemed like surefire bets in a stay-at-home economy are laying off staff or freezing hiring.
In June, crypto firm Coinbase Global Inc. said it would lay off 18% of its workforce. Robinhood Markets Inc. said this month it would eliminate nearly a quarter of its staff. Even Apple Inc. laid off many of its contract-based recruiters, and firms from Peloton Interactive Inc. to LinkedIn Corp. have also recently shed staff.
That may partly explain the recent growth of boomerang employees.
“The hard reality is that at 30, 40, or even 50, it’s really hard to change careers and maintain the lifestyle you’re used to,” said Adam Kail, founder and chief executive officer of Harrison Gray Search and Consulting in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I’ve seen people switch careers drastically but in a short period of time realize, ‘I’m not as happy doing something I like more, but with my pay a third of what it was before.’”
In contrast to decades past, firms are now happy to take their old employees back. And they aren’t being quiet about it. LinkedIn is filled with posts from companies including Deutsche Bank AG, EY and Deloitte touting returning employees, often with elaborate blog posts, pictures and videos showing happy staff back at their companies.
“On social media, you can very easily click back in and say, ‘Hey, I’d love to talk to someone again about maybe reengaging in employment with the firm,” says Dan Black, EY’s global leader for talent attraction and acquisition.
Social-media posts from boomerangs can help with recruitment in a still-tight labor market by showing the firm is a good place to work, according to Catherine Shea, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business who co-authored a 2021 study on returning employees.
But Shea and her team found that boomerangs come with a cost. They analyzed two groups of employees at a US professional services firm: Workers who had boomeranged and similar workers who had never left. They found that boomerangs were paid more but performed on a similar level as employees who stayed. Still, boomerangs tended to spend more time on long-term projects, which might benefit firms because it indicates they have a deeper level of commitment to the company.
Matthew Wragg, CEO of engineering and tech recruitment firm Gattaca, says he’s hired six boomerang employees in the past three months.
“You’ve got that cultural cognizance,” he says. “They know the culture. They know the operating processes.”
They also tend to change little between their first and second tours of the company, according to a study that John Arnold of the University of Missouri conducted with a team of other researchers. They examined some 30,000 boomerang and traditional employees over eight years. They found that in general, employees who performed well in their first stints also performed well in their second. Those who underperformed at first continued to underperform when they returned.
Staging a Comeback
This is why companies considering bringing back a boomerang candidate need to investigate carefully why he or she left in the first place, says Paul McDonald, a senior executive director at recruiter Robert Half. Red flags might be dissatisfaction with upward mobility, concerns about management, or poor cultural fit. Those issues are unlikely to have changed in the interim. On the other hand, salary, benefits and non-monetary perks are all issues that can be solved, within reason.
Candidates looking to boomerang should carefully consider whether going back to an old employer is the right move, says Mark Royal, a senior director at consultant Korn Ferry. Some may look to jump back too soon without giving their new jobs enough of a try.
Those who do decide to jump back should cast their time away in a positive light, he says.
“You want to be framing it in terms of what you’ve learned in the role you’re now leaving and what you can bring back to your former employer and why that will be valuable for you both,” says Royal.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.