By John D. Arnold, Chad H. Van Iddekinge, Michael C. Campion, Talya N. Bauer & Michael A. Campion
A stellar employee leaves your company for another job. Perhaps he was lured by a recruiter offering an enticing salary and impressive perks, or maybe he just wanted to try something new. But months—or even years—later, he is knocking on your door again. Turns out the grass was not greener on the other side. Do you rehire him?
Historically, leaving an organization was considered disloyal, and rehiring former employees was considered taboo. However, in an age when the average worker will work for more than 12 different employers during his career and companies are grappling with a tight labor market and skill shortages, many organizations are giving consideration to “boomerang” employees.
Rehiring former employees is often believed to come with certain benefits attached. First, because boomerang employees are known, they are considered to be less risky a choice than first-time hires. Returning employees also already know the job and require less training and onboarding time. And because they know what they’re getting into, they may be more committed this time and less likely to leave again. Perhaps most importantly, they may have improved thanks to the experiences they had during their time away and bring back fresh knowledge, skills and maturity.
Very little research has examined this staffing strategy, however. For this reason we set out to see if boomerang employees were living up to the assumptions listed above. Our research addressed two main questions:
1) Does the job performance of boomerang employees improve, stay the same or decline upon returning to their former employers?
2) How do boomerang employees’ performance levels and turnover rates compare to those of more traditional hires, such as internally promoted employees and those brought in from outside the company?
We analyzed a large data set consisting of eight years of archival data on over 30,000 employees in management positions at a large retail organization who were brought in as external hires, promoted from inside the company or rehired after leaving it. In addition to job history information such as tenure and reasons for departure, the data set included the organization’s annual ratings of the managers’ job performance, based on their competencies, job responsibilities and goal accomplishment. Here’s what we found:
Boomerang employees’ performance tends to remain the same after they are rehired
Additionally, boomerang employees who leave the organization a second time tend to do so for reasons similar to those that motivated their first departure. In other words, boomerang employees’ actions are fairly predictable based on the behaviors exhibited during the initial tenure.
Both internal and external hires improve more over time than rehires
While boomerang employees perform similarly to internal and external hires in the first year, they are outperformed after the first year on the job.
Boomerang employees are more likely to turn over than both internal and external hires
This suggests that if an employee has left an organization once, he may be willing to do so again.
We were curious to find out if the reasons boomerang employees left in the first place might also provide more insight. For example, the retail company we studied had rehired some employees who turned over involuntarily, perhaps as a way of providing them with a “second chance.” So, we classified the reasons for initial turnover based on whether they might be a positive indicator of future job performance (such as to continue their education), a relatively neutral indicator (such as for personal reasons) or a negative indicator (such as termination due to poor performance).
We found that return performance was comparable among boomerang employees who had originally left for positive or neutral reasons. In contrast, boomerang employees whose initial turnover was for performance-related reasons did not do as well as those positive or neutral employees. Although we had hoped there would be a good “second-chance” story here, we found that behavior was consistent before and after rehiring.
So, can hiring boomerang employees still be a good investment? Our findings did support the idea that boomerang employees’ future outcomes are likely to be consistent with their past behavior. As such, a returning employee is probably less risky than someone unknown because organizations can expect that person to perform in a manner similar to how he did before. If that performance level is acceptable, then he may be a good hire. Additionally, boomerang employees who left for relatively positive or neutral reasons initially outperformed internal and external hires. This supports the claim that boomerangs require less onboarding and may contribute more quickly than other worker types. On the other hand, boomerang employees did not appear to return with higher levels of commitment. In fact, they turned over at a higher rate than other types of employees.
Although it would be interesting to know how employees who have been laid off do when they return (especially given the mass layoffs resulting from Covid-19), our data did not include layoffs, and some of our findings may not apply to that specific type of boomerang employee. For example, we don’t know whether employees who have been laid off and are later rehired would turn over more than other types of hires. Given what we do know so far, however, we would generally recommend rehiring good performers who have previously been laid off.
The bottom line is that upon rehiring, boomerang employees are likely to be about the same as they were before, rather than better or worse. So, don’t just believe the hype. First, consider your organization’s objectives, and if predictability, short-term performance and lower training costs are your goals, boomerang employees may be right for you.
John D. Arnold is an assistant professor in the management department at the University of Missouri’s Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business. Chad H. Van Iddekinge is the Henry B. Tippie research professor of management at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. Michael C. Campion is an assistant professor in the management department at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Talya N. Bauer is the Cameron professor of management at the School of Business at Portland State University. Michael A. Campion is the Herman C. Krannert distinguished professor of management at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management.
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