Back again? The rise of the boomerang employee

Back again? The rise of the boomerang employee

'Comeback kids', as they're also known, are proving to be quite the catch for employers everywhere. Here's why your former place of work can be your next place of work too


Karen Ann Monsy

Published: Thu 15 Mar 2018, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 23 Mar 2018, 8:28 AM

It used to be that when you left an organisation, you did so with a fair bit of to-do: your colleagues hosted a party at which you bid everyone fond farewells, and then you walked out with whatever personal effects/potted plants cluttered your workspace in a carton (or so Hollywood would have us picture it) - and that was that. You moved on. There certainly wasn't a question of. coming back.
And yet, of late, there has been such a spike in the number of 'comeback kids' that the trend even has a name for such returning employees: boomerangs. Sure, we had Michael Jordan return, after a brief stint in baseball, to the NBA in 1995 (with that hilarious two-word press release - "I'm back." - that sent the sports world into a renewed tizzy) - but he represented the exception back then, not the norm. That's not true today - and the recent news that over 2,200 former employees have flocked back to Microsoft after Satya Nadella took over as CEO is perhaps the biggest example of a phenomenon that has winged its way back into the current dialogue on changing corporate cultures.
It was after almost 11 years of working in client servicing that Arif Ladhabhoy decided to quit his job at BPG Possible in order to join a startup in Dubai. "It was a very personal decision stemming from a midlife crisis," admits the 39-year-old. "Plus, I'd worked in large agencies for many years and really wanted to try my hand at a startup. I knew that if I didn't take the chance then, it would probably never have happened. So, it was just something I had to get out of my system - a risk I had to take." The move was tough, in that Arif was moving industries altogether, but he made the leap - only to soon discover the new environment wasn't his scene. "It didn't go the way I'd anticipated, and I realised I liked the environment of a larger organisation."
An encounter with his former CEO sparked discussions on a possible return to the company but Arif says it wasn't just the comfortable work environment that lured him back. "It's also about the right role. You don't want to come back to the role you left," he points out, "because no matter where you worked in the interim, you have learnt and grown some more - and you do still need a role that challenges you."
Today, Arif works as business director for the digital firm - he returned 'home' in August last year - and believes the support of the organisation played a major role in that decision. "The company has a good set of values that are aligned with my own. So, even though setups and systems have changed since I was here last, the DNA of the organisation hasn't. Thankfully, if it sees value in rehiring an employee, there's no discrimination against that person just because he/she once left."

(left to right) Arif Ladhabhoy, Lisa Welsh, Noriel Banes, and Thani Al Zaffin
A fresh perspective
Employers everywhere are quickly finding that there is much to gain - on both sides of the table - by welcoming a former employee back into the fold: from larger contact bases and reduced training costs to shorter adjustment periods. With boomerang employees, the familiarity with practices and protocols at their former workplace means that getting back into the groove will be quicker. But also, a key advantage for businesses is the fresh perspective and energy that a returning employee brings.
When Lisa Welsh first joined communications firm Hill+Knowlton, it was as group account director. Gradually, she rose through the ranks to become general manager, running the company's Dubai and Abu Dhabi offices and overseeing about 80 people in all. By December 2016, however, she needed a timeout. She'd just come out of a divorce and "needed some time to focus on self-care". A passionate traveller, she decided to cut herself loose and see where the road would take her. The British expat sold everything she had, and for the next nine months, backpacked through 19 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe and America. She climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, did a marathon in Kenya, learnt Muay Thai boxing in Thailand. "I basically said 'yes' to lots of different scary experiences that challenged me personally," says the 37-year-old. "It was about finding out how strong I was as a person, both mentally and physically, and soaking up different cultures, gaining new perspectives."
Those nine months helped her realise a lot of things - including how much she'd loved her job - and the road she'd set out on led her back to Dubai. Three months before her return, she reconnected with her old boss, with whom she discussed the possibility of a 'comeback' and what that role could look like. In September last year, Lisa joined the firm again - this time as managing director. Things had changed while she'd been away ("there were a lot of new faces, but thankfully a large majority of colleagues I still knew") - but what strengthened her position was the diversity of her experiences. "It was a bit scary in that it was going to be much harder to prove to people how much I'd gained in the time I'd been away (as opposed to someone going on maternity leave or further studies). But I came back really refreshed and driven, with so much energy and excitement to be back. I'm now far more open to ideas that seem risky, looking at the bigger picture and taking on more challenges. Considering all that, I believe my decision to leave only helped my career, instead of hindering it."
Lisa echoes Arif when she says the culture of a workplace makes all the difference, when it comes to weighing out the pros and cons of a return. "Being able to have honest, direct conversations with your employer about what you want to do shows that the company is focused on their people and making sure they feel fulfilled. It would be good to see more companies be open to having such conversations."
There's always a 'but'.
While much has been said on the mutual benefits that boomerang employees offer, it's not a given that all of them will prove a great catch. Naturally, organisations will be wary of taking on boomerangs if their record at their last workplace wasn't positive. At the same time, not all of them stand to gain from welcoming boomerangs. Thani Al Zaffin, director general and board member at emaratech, notes that, as a software house, the company deals with new technologies and requires new skills constantly. "Bringing in boomerang employees, therefore, does not necessarily bring in the expertise of the latest technologies available in the market. On the contrary, it may involve extensive training to bring him/her up to speed, while breaking formerly entrenched habits and processes."
"Every boomerang employee is different," he continues. "But, generally, it is about balancing the weight of the boomerang's flight risk and the psychological spin of their return to your workforce versus the very quantifiable advantages of bringing back a team member whose skills, training, and work ethic are already known to you."
The flight risk and psychological impact of such returns are questions that every organisation has to ask, agrees Noriel Banes, who has worked as a recruitment officer for the last three years with an engineering consultancy in Dubai. "Companies have to consider that if employees left once, they could well do so again. There are also cases where boomerangs actually cause conflict within departments, as existing employees may feel like their desires for growth are going unrecognised while returning employees are hired at higher positions."
How are these dilemmas to be sorted out? "Go back to the boomerang's exit interview," says Noriel. "That way, you'd know the reasons for why the employee left: was it for growth? Were there unresolved issues when they left? The exit interview is a great tool by which you can ascertain whether a potential boomerang should be rehired or not."
What boomerang employees should keep in mind
Take every opportunity to improve yourself upon your return. Companies today are increasingly asking for dynamic employees, so it always helps to attend trainings and develop yourself through certification.
2. Continue to innovate. Returning employees run the risk of falling into familiar routines or doing things 'as they used to'. Strive to break the mould.
3. Make sure you're not just acquiring new skills for yourself - but also expanding your network.
- Courtesy: Noriel Banes, recruitment officer
Planning to quit?
If you're thinking of putting in your papers, Lisa Welsh has a few words of advice to ensure you'll always be welcomed back:
1. Be honest about your reasons for leaving.
2. Don't burn your bridges.
3. Involve your employers early on in the decision-making process to see if there are mutually beneficial options to consider.
4. Do a good enough job while you're at the company that they would want you to come back in the end.

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