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Tamara Erickson Discusses Bringing Good Former Employees Back to Your Organization

In what’s perhaps the most frequently discussed example, some women chose to off ramp for several years sometime in their career, and many are eager for opportunities to return. Older workers may present boomerang possibilities as well. Sixty percent of workers age 60-plus say they will look for a new job after they retire – possibly back in your organization.

But it would be a mistake to only focus on these two groups; there are also those who left initially due to personal issues, other job opportunities, or even a round of layoffs.

Former employees, of course, offer many advantages: they are familiar with your operations and culture, know many of your current employees and clients, and may require little or no training to start making contributions. Often they are cheaper to hire, particularly if former managers have maintained contact while the employee is away.

So how do you make it so these boomerang employees actually want to return to your company?

The biggest challenge to leveraging boomerang talent for most organizations is the nature of the “out” process itself. For most of us, departures, whether initiated by the employee or the company, are negative events. They are weighed down with feelings of guilt and failure, often on both sides. This negativity occurs because conventional “outs” are shaped by the expectations we convey about the relationship from the beginning — that we want unconditional loyalty and that it will be rewarded (perhaps, “wink, wink”) with a steady career and comfortable retirement. When these expectations are not borne out, due to either parties’ initiative, bad feelings are the inevitable result.

Setting the stage for positive “outs” and creating the possibility of happy returns requires redefining the relationship from the very beginning — setting different expectations during the hiring process. Today more than 25 percent of the working population goes through career transitions every year and half of all hourly workers leave new jobs within the first 120 days, according to research conducted by Talya N. Bauer of SHRM Foundation; clearly the “employee for life” model has run its course.

Rather than implying that you expect indefinite tenure and unconditional loyalty, ask for the employee’s full discretionary effort for the time they will be here. And rather than signaling that you will provide opportunities for life (something few hires actually trust anyway), make it clear that you are offering interesting and challenging work, coupled with fair arrangements, while it is available.

Reducing the implied promise of long-term protection and care sets the expectation that departures will naturally occur when that interesting and challenging work comes to an end. It conveys the expectation that departures can be mutually positive and facilitates multiple employment stints (off-ramps on-ramps, boomerangs, and retiree returns) as the company’s work load warrants. This philosophy focuses on matching relevant skills and capabilities in the moment and recognizes, where appropriate, the legitimacy of concurrent employment arrangements.

Creating an environment that leverages the power of positive “outs” is greatly enhanced by forward thinking work arrangements that are designed to let people connect and reconnect with your organization in a variety of ways. For example:

  • Flexible time: Flexible shifts, compressed workweeks, and individualized work schedules.
  • Reduced time: Part-time options, job sharing, self-scheduling, leave-of-absence programs, and cyclic or project-based work.
  • Flexible place: Mobile work and telecommuting.
  • Tasks, not time: Requirements to put in only as much time as it actually takes to get the work done, removing restrictions around a prescribed time or place.
  • Decelerating roles: Career path options that go ‘down’ (to lower levels of responsibility).

In addition to setting the right tone at the beginning, structure the exit process to facilitate re-entry and build a flexible network of talent possibilities. Invite them to join your network, build your own flexible talent pool, and create a residual knowledge bank. Regardless of whether their departure is voluntary or involuntary, it’s never wise to say goodbye to a good employee.

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Tamara Erickson Discusses Bringing Good Former Employees Back to Your Organization
So-called "boomerang" employees — those who leave and then return — will become an increasingly valuable source of talent over the years ahead.
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  • Tamara Erickson Tamara J. Erickson is a McKinsey Award-winning author, a leading expert on generations in the workplace, and a widely-respected authority on leadership, the changing workforce, collaboration and innovation, and the nature of work in intelligent organizations. She has three times been named one of the 50 most influential living management thinkers in the world by ... more

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