The Promise (and Risk) of Boomerang Employees

05 May 2023

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​According to a recent international survey, nearly 20% of workers who quit their jobs during the pandemic have since returned to their old employers. The prevalence of these boomerang employees represents a major opportunity for companies, many of which are becoming increasingly intentional about recruiting alumni as potential rehires — but it also represents a major risk with respect to retention, as new hires may be increasingly liable to boomerang back to their previous organizations.

Clearly, the boomerang phenomenon is a double-edged sword. How can employers capitalize on the opportunities for recruitment while mitigating the risks for retention? Through an analysis of three million employee records covering more than 120 enterprise-sized organizations between 2019 and 2022, we identified several common trends with respect to who is most likely to boomerang, when it’s likely to happen, and why they’re likely to make the jump back. These trends in turn inform strategies for employers on both sides of the boomerang equation.

Boomerang Employees Are More Common Than You Might Think

While prior survey-based studies have suggested that boomeranging is relatively rare, our large-scale analysis of workers’ actual employment records enabled us to get a much more accurate picture: We found that across organizations in a wide range of industries, 28% of “new hires” were actually boomerang hires who had resigned within the last 36 months.

So who are these employees? Our analyses revealed some variance across industries, with rehires representing an average 33% of new hires in retail, compared to 25% in manufacturing and just 14% in tech. We also found that boomerang employees are more likely to be managers than non-managers, perhaps because organizations often try to entice former employees to return by offering them higher-paying roles with management responsibilities.

We next turned our attention to the question of when boomeranging tends to occur. Again, there was a range, but the majority of boomerang employees returned to their original employers within 13 months of their departure, just 26% returned within seven months, and more than three quarters returned by month 16 — suggesting that right after the one-year mark is a particularly common time for employees to make the leap back.

And finally, why did these employees opt to become boomerangs? Our quantitative analysis as well as interviews with half a dozen U.S.-based boomerang employees shed light on some important factors. First, in most cases, employees felt that their new organization did not live up to the promises it made or the expectations it set when they were hired. Whether explicit employment terms were not met or employees perceived a violation of their psychological contract (that is, the unspoken, assumed agreements between a worker and employer), employees who felt betrayed by their new organization were particularly likely to return to their old one. For example, some employees we interviewed described how the promotion and growth opportunities available in their new roles did not match the promises made to them during the interview process, leading to their decision to boomerang.

In addition, our findings showed that the more workers maintained strong social ties to their former colleagues, the more likely they were to return. And finally (if not surprisingly), we found that many boomerang employees were at least in part financially motivated, with boomerang employees receiving an average pay raise of a whopping 25% relative to their salaries at the time of their resignation. In contrast, those who stayed with one employer received average salary increases of just 4% in the same time period.

In light of these findings, we’ve identified several steps employers can take both to recruit back their own boomerangs, and encourage would-be boomerangs to stay:

Boomerang Defense

From a retention standpoint, our research points to two critical strategies to help employers defend against the threat of boomerang employees — that is, to retain new hires and keep them from boomeranging back to their previous employers.

Bridge the gap between recruitment promises and employee experience.

In many cases, retention problems stem from the fact that the people who recruit new employees are not the same people as those who will actually work with or manage the employee once they’re hired. This disconnect creates potential for psychological contract breaches (whether due to misunderstandings or literal contract breaches), when new employees’ experiences on the job differ from what they were told to expect during the hiring process.

To bridge this gap, organizations must work to align those doing the recruiting and hiring with the managers and coworkers most familiar with what the job actually entails. Providing candidates with a realistic picture of the job — including both the good and the bad — has long been recognized as an effective way to reduce turnover, and our findings suggest it may be especially important in defending against boomerang recruitment efforts from new hires’ former employers. In addition, conducting stay interviews during an employee’s first few months can help surface any gaps between expectations and reality, enabling managers to address misalignments before they start to feel like full-on psychological contract violations.

Beware the post-onboarding danger zone.

In addition, while effective onboarding can play a major role in driving retention, even organizations that invest in a full year of onboarding may still struggle when it comes to retaining potential boomerang employees. After all, our research shows that these workers often jump ship just after the one-year mark. So to avoid this costly sophomore slump in retention, employers should consider investing in engagement programs specifically targeted at workers who are entering their second year.

Importantly, fair compensation is a critical ingredient for engagement. By the end of an employee’s first year, it should be clear whether their performance is at, below, or above expectations. Particularly for those who are exceeding expectations or showing signs of being able to do so soon, employers should consider proactively offering a raise, promotion, or other meaningful career development opportunity. While some organizations may hesitate to offer these opportunities after just a year of employment, our research demonstrates that this is a key period for employees — especially for top performers, who are more likely to have other options. As such, it may be worth spending a little more up front to retain them, rather than losing a year’s investment in onboarding someone only to have them return to a previous employer.

Boomerang Offense

Conversely, from a recruitment standpoint, our research suggests two strategies to help employers take the offensive — that is, to proactively entice former employees to come back as boomerang employees.

Say au revoir, but not goodbye, to exiting employees.

When an employee gives notice, most companies focus on minimizing the disruption to the organization and remaining workers. While understandable, this approach is incomplete. In addition to these efforts, employers should take steps to build positive relationships with departing workers. After all, our research shows that these employees represent a substantial future recruiting pool.

Beyond ensuring that exiting employees leave on good terms, organizations stand to benefit from cultivating these relationships even after workers leave. For example, Deloitte offers former employees access to an online platform where its more than 20,000 global alumni can network, share employment opportunities, and stay connected with colleagues who are still with the organization. Alumni programs like these demonstrate to former employees that they will always be welcomed back if they choose to return, ensure that the organization remains top-of-mind as they progress through their careers, and provide hiring teams with easy access to a massive, known talent pool.

Pitch the Rehire at the One-Year Mark

The one-year anniversary of a former employee’s resignation represents a natural milestone to check in, express to them that they are missed, and make a rehire offer. Our research shows that this is also the time when they’re most likely to want to boomerang back, but employers shouldn’t just sit around and wait for it to happen. Reconnecting at this critical moment can be a great way to encourage an employee who may be considering a return to make the leap.

Unsurprisingly, the offer is likely to be better received if it includes a pay raise or promotion. In particular, especially for individual contributors, it may be worth gauging interest in joining the managerial ranks. We spoke with many individual contributors who left one organization in the hope of becoming a manager elsewhere, but found the same career stagnation in their new role. These workers often expressed that when their original employer offered them the management responsibilities they were looking for, they were happy to return. Indeed, 40% of the boomerang employees in our dataset were previously individual contributors who returned to their former firms in managerial positions, suggesting that this can be a very effective way to entice people to come back.

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Of course, boomerang recruitment and retention strategies should never come at the cost of existing employees. Nothing corrodes trust and commitment like seeing a former employee be rehired at a higher wage, while those who stay receive neither compensation adjustments nor career growth opportunities. Similarly, if employers shower recent hires (who are more likely to boomerang) with retention incentives while overlooking long-term employees, even the most loyal are likely to grow resentful.

But when implemented with an eye toward equity, these strategies can be a boon to organizations and employees alike. Defensively, retention strategies that keep new hires from being poached by former employers will ensure that workers are engaged and set up to grow with their new company. And offensively, recruitment strategies that leverage the valuable talent pool represented by former employees enable workers to return to a familiar workplace, but often in a more fitting role. Ultimately, the rise of the boomerang employee can represent a major threat, or a major opportunity. It’s up to today’s employers to minimize the former while capitalizing on the latter.