In 2018, Lien Ceulemans left Salesforce for a new job at Google in London. She returned to the cloud software group, becoming a “boomerang” employee, last year. “The people I used to work with reached out when a role came up.”
Her return was, in part, personal. She wanted a job in Brussels, to be close to her family. Professionally, it was a step up, becoming country leader at a time when the company is forging new working patterns as it emerges from the pandemic.
Returning to an old employer had advantages. Ceulemans was already familiar with the culture. “If you already know the organisation it’s easier to get on.” Over the past two years many new starters have had to grapple with remote interviews, onboarding and homeworking, making it particularly hard to get a handle on their new organisations.
Keen to fill labour shortages, employers have tried recruitment parties, hiring bonuses, wage increases and perks. Now some are considering previous employees. According to LinkedIn, the professional social network, 4.5 per cent of new recruits on its platform were boomerangs last year compared with 3.9 per cent in 2019. EnterpriseAlumni, which creates software for organisations, says about 24 per cent of alumni on their platforms apply for a job at a former employer.
For the employer there can be a financial boon to hiring boomerangs, reducing recruitment and training costs and increasing productivity. One study by Cornell University compared the work experiences of just over 2,000 boomerangs and almost 11,000 new hires in a large, US-based healthcare organisation. It found that boomerangs outperformed new hires, especially in roles that involved “relatively high levels of administrative co-ordination, such as project manager and purchasing agent that encompass planning, goal setting, scheduling, and the application of organisational routines and rules”. And also in jobs that focused co-operation with others within the company.
Caroline Gaffney, vice-president of product and chief of staff to the chief executive at LinkedIn, who returned to the company four years ago after a stint at Instagram, would encourage people “in this period of the great reshuffle to think about companies you worked for in the past”.
Mike Ettling, chief executive of Unit4, a cloud-based software company, says: “You’ve always been able to talent arbitrage, but now you have this phenomenon [the Great Resignation] happening everywhere, the single biggest technique to find [recruits] in another pond has gone.” This means employers will need to experiment.
Alumni are increasingly important to recruiters, Ettling says. This might mean changing the way an employer frames staff departures. Rather than saying goodbye, he suggests welcoming departing staff to the alumni network, a principle he practises himself. “Stop thinking of it as a negative – they potentially could come back to us. Let’s see it as a positive.” This mindset also changes the tone of exit interviews. “Too many people go into the conversation with a rescue approach. I’d rather [talk] about how we can help you in the next role.”
Maral Kazanjian, chief people officer at Moody’s, the rating agency, and herself a recent boomerang, says she has seen “organisations treating [departing employees] as disloyal”. Andrea Legnani, global head of alumni relations at Citi, detects a shift in corporate attitudes to recently departed staff. “Employers are thinking of alumni as an opportunity rather than a betrayal.” In the past, he says, alumni “were mostly retirees, now companies are looking at alumni as employees of the future”. The company estimates about 10 per cent of its current global workforce are boomerangs.
An alumni network can help employers discover how to target boomerangs. Legnani says that he learnt that Citi employees in Africa were being lured by start-ups. “We were able to do a specific letter to [this population], saying there are jobs for tech workers.” He also adds that alumni networks can change the way staff who were made redundant through a merger, for example, or cost-cutting, feel about their former employer. They might feel rejected, he says, and an alumni network can provide a “different voice”.
However, employers must be conscious that if they are hiring from a historical talent pool it could counter efforts to diversify the workforce. Champions of alumni networks argue that formalising such structures would overcome informal networks of patronage.
Rejoining the company
Nisha Vasan left the Walt Disney Company to join WeWork in March 2020 and rejoined the film and entertainment group at the start of this year, after a 12-month stint elsewhere. She says “it is a joy to onboard when you already know some of the people”. This was especially so after joining two organisations in the pandemic. “This is my third remote onboarding. The hardest part of being a new employee is building relationships. The familiarity is comforting, [knowing] the organisational structure, how teams work, has made it seamless.” However, the group she has returned to is not exactly the one she left. “There’s been a lot of change at the company. You’re not starting at ground zero. You’re not starting at 10, but somewhere [in between].”
Kazanjian at Moody’s says a boomerang must have “a curiosity about what [the organisation] is like today”.
Ettling says that in growing companies, boomerangs might find the business is very different to the one they left. “The worst thing you can do is expect [a boomerang] to be fine. Often I get emails from [them] saying, ‘Wow the company’s so different’.”
While the job Gaffney took at Instagram was in an area she had worked before — product — the one she returned to in LinkedIn entailed a steep learning curve. “I tried to come back with an open mind. I spent the first three to six months taking in information, to understand how the organisation was running [rather than my] historical assumptions.”
Emma Sinclair, chief executive of EnterpriseAlumni, points out that “it’s not just people who evolve [but] organisations too — going back to something you know with new skills and experience is compelling”.
Returning employees are likely to have goodwill to their employer, typically leaving due to personal reasons (location or caring responsibilities), or a compelling job offer.
Ettling, whose Unit4 workforce numbers about 2,800, says he values employees with a mixture of big corporate and start-up experience. “The smaller businesses give you [the ability to be] faster moving, and more nimble. You have the underdog moves. I always say to people when thinking about their career to try to get both.”
While research indicates that boomerangs might outperform external hires, Alison Dachner, assistant professor of management at the Boler School of Business, John Carroll University, says that for long-term performance benefits, internal hires might prove more effective than convincing ex-employees to return — boomerangs are likely to have negotiated higher pay and better job descriptions. Managers need to be conscious of the impact of well-paid returning employees on their teams’ morale. It may send out a signal that the only way to increase salaries is to leave the company.
Dachner does not recommend employers “talent hoard” but rather “improve ease of movement and role transitions”. So alumni should be considered a “part of overall talent management which includes supporting internal mobility”. Salesforce, for example, has a dedicated internal recruiting team to help employees find new opportunities at the company. Erin Makarius, associate professor of management at Ohio’s University of Akron, says companies should focus more on internal promotions, having regular coaching or career conversations. “How often do employers say, ‘where do you want to go next?’”
Gaffney says LinkedIn’s executive chair Jeff Weiner has a “next play” philosophy, where employees are encouraged to plan their next steps, including building careers that might include a move outside the company. When she originally thought about leaving the group, managers and mentors were “very supportive. It’s part of our culture to have open conversations” including identifying their next opportunity and discussing how to reach it, including externally.
New York-based Amer Jan, a home lending officer, is pleased to have returned to Citi after 18 years. One aspect he has noticed that is different from his previous stint is the confidence that comes with age. “If I have an idea, I will call people, I don’t care about their seniority.”