As the NBA Season gets ready to tip off, Cleveland is certainly ready. The return of LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers has riveted the sports world and reinvigorated Cleveland. But for employers, this “going home” phenomenon has prompted conversations of boomerang employees — those employees who leave an employer only to return sometime later. This article looks at this relatively-new concept, and outlines what employers should consider before re-hiring a boomerang employee.

When the question used to come up of whether to re-hire a former employee, many employers aligned with one school of thinking: “If you thought the grass was greener on the other side, you can stay there.”

This particular mindset, however, has increasingly becoming the minority view. This attitude shift is forcing recruiters and employers to rethink not only their recruiting strategies, but also their hiring and exit strategies.

This attitude shift seems spurred by four major factors: (1) generational disparity; (2) the economy; (3) changing/expanding gender roles; and (4) skill specialization.

Generational Disparity

Employees born during the Veterans (born before 1946) and the Baby Boomer (born 1946 – 1964) eras would have been far more hesitant to leave one job for another out of fear of being considered disloyal or a job hopper. This is no longer the case. Now the percentage of employees who stay with one employer throughout the course of their careers is extremely low. This became first noticeable for workers in Generation X (born 1964 – mid-80’s). In fact, it seems that when Generation Xers entered the workforce, they abandoned the idea of life-long employment, along with 8-track tapes. This change in ideology did not stop with Generation X, and continued to Generation Y, also known as the Millennials (born mid-80’s to early 2000’s). While many Generation Xers turned to job hopping as a means of survival, Millennials took it further, and turned to job hopping as a means of career advancement.

The Economy

As alluded to earlier, this attitude shift is not based solely on the workers’ personalities — those pesky Generation Xers did not let their listening to too much Nirvana rot their brains — economic factors played a key role.

Baby Boomers have been slower to leave the work force due to financial constraints, meaning there have been fewer advancement opportunities for younger workers to step into. Job hopping is no longer a sign of poor character; it is a career plan, and many Generation Xers and Millennials subscribe to the line of thinking: “The only way to move up is to move on.”

In addition, most private sector employers long ago phased out defined pension plans that rewarded long-term service and replaced them with far more portable 401k plans and the like. With that, a major incentive for long-term employment with just one employer dried up.

Generations X and Y also got to experience the recession that started in 2008. Many workers lost their jobs, lost their homes, and basically saw their lives turn upside down. But one thing these groups had that the Baby Boomers had far less of, student loan debt, and lots of it. The recession changed the way these groups look at things. These groups were taught growing up that if you went to college, you could get a good job with financial security. The recession proved this to be untrue for many new job seekers. For many, higher education is no longer the golden ticket to a good job; now, it has to be viewed as an investment that comes with potential risks just like other more traditional investments, like the stock market and real estate.

3.  Changing/Expanding Gender Roles

This ties into the next factor, changing/expanding gender roles. More women than ever are in the workforce, more families are dual-income, and more women are breadwinners. These changing/expanding gender roles have caused people to leave employment for one reason or another. They move for their spouse’s job, for school, to have children, etc. Some employees also change jobs to have a better work-life balance. This leads some employees to opt for project-type work, rather than a steady 9-5 job. In other words, life happens, and the flexible employers win out.

4.  Skill Specialization

The last factor is skill specialization. The professional workforce has changed, and the demand for employees with specialized skills is high. As such, employees with the covetable skills are constantly offered opportunities. Some employees leave, not because they are disloyal, but because they can and because, these days, money and job flexibility talk. Some employees stay, not because they are loyal, but because they have to. This is just as much the employer’s fault though as it is the employee’s, because employers need to learn how to retain top talent through more flexibility, creative fringe benefit options like onsite day care, etc.

The combination of generational disparity, the economy, changing/expanding gender roles and skill specialization have made life-long employment a thing of the past. The present and the future is the free-agent generation. The good news is that employers seem to be getting on board. To many, leaving a company is no longer viewed as a betrayal, and many companies have changed their thinking about boomerang employees. They no longer see them as “ex-employees,” or “traitors”; rather, they consider them “alumni,” and continue to maintain their connections to these former employees.

Advantages

There is no denying that there is value in hiring a boomerang employee. The cost of losing an employee and hiring and training a new one is expensive. Studies suggest that hiring a boomerang employee has one of the highest returns on a recruiting investment – 1/3 to 2/3 the cost of hiring a newbie employee. It often makes sense then for an employer to rehire a former worker to offset some of these costs.

Social media sites like LinkedIn make it even easier to keep track of former employees, and it is typically less expensive to rehire them directly and bypass the search and recruitment process altogether. With these employees, employers know what they are getting.

Another advantage with boomerang employees is saving time on training and ramp-up time, and they tend to acclimate more easily as they re-enter the workforce because they understand the organization’s work structure and culture. They may also know most of the key players (if the company has not had a lot of turnover).

Another value, boomerang employees have gotten their chance to see if the grass really is greener on the other side. Returning employees who have gotten to see firsthand that it is not, are many times better workers, more committed, more loyal, and better brand ambassadors.

The Risks

But it is not all positive. There are risks involved in hiring a boomerang employee because not all boomerang employees are created equal, and it is not always the “one that got away” that tries to return. Here are five considerations when deciding whether to return a boomerang employee.

Number 1: Circumstances of the Departure

The number one consideration is to determinate why and how the employee left. Not surprising, employees who left voluntarily on good terms are best suited to return to work, as opposed to those employees who left involuntarily or on bad terms. Did the employee leave because of dissatisfaction with the company, or because of some personal reason, like spouse job relocation, pregnancy, or some other reason?

If an employee left because of lack of growth opportunities, because the employee thought he was underpaid, or because he had a less-than-stellar relationship with a supervisor or co-workers, unless the company has undergone a significant change since the employee left, it is unlikely that the employee’s issues with the company will have resolved or stabilized in a manner that will result in long term, sustained employment.

In addition, if the employee was fired or forced out, they should not be considered for re-hire, unless of course the person or persons who forced them out were discovered to be the source of the problem. Similarly, if an employee left involuntarily because of poor performance, the employer would generally be foolish to rehire them.

Some employers also refuse to re-hire an employee who left to go to a competitor. There may be non-compete issues to consider in this type of situation. It could be become a very expensive rehire decision is if it results in litigation with the employee’s most recent employer.

These considerations are examples of why it is important for employers to conduct and document exit interviews when employees resign or are terminated. An exit interview gives the employee an opportunity to provide the employer constructive feedback about their job, co-workers, supervisors, and the company overall. If the employer documents what the individual said during the exit interview and retains that information, it can be an invaluable resource to refer back to when considering that individual for rehire a few years down the road.

Number 2: Length of Departure

Another consideration is how long the employee was away from the workforce. Employees gone for short periods take less time to train and re-acclimate to the organization, its culture, and the demands of the job given the current organizational climate. Bottom line, the shorter the leave, the more money the company can save.

Number 3: Past Performance

This largely follows Number 1. One reason to keep good employment records is to determine if an employee should be considered for re-hire. Of course no employer wants to re-hire a poor performer or a chronic attendance problem. But for large employers or employers with high turnover, there may be little or no institutional knowledge of an employee’s prior employment tenure. This means, if details about the employee’s prior employment are not in the records, the employer may not discover it.

This is also why it is important for employers to ask on the employment application if the applicant has ever worked for the company before and, if so, why the employee left. If the employee was terminated, it should come out at this time. If the employee lies and is hired, once the lie is discovered, the employee could perhaps be terminated for lying during the application process.

Number 4: Performance at Current Employer and Reason for Returning

During their absence, there is a good chance that boomerang employees have learned new skills, expanded their network, and had other successes. It is important to have a candid conversation with the employee and find out exactly why the employee wants to return. There are right reasons to return and there are wrong ones. If an employee wants to return because the employee misses former colleagues, it is not a good reason. If the employee wants to return because the employee has not had success in subsequent employment, it is not a good reason.

The best case is when an employee wants to return because the employee has had time to learn, grow, develop new skills, and believes the former employer can take advantage of the employee’s newly-expanded skillset and network.

Number 5: Needs of the Company

No matter how great a former employee might have been or currently is, ultimately the decision to re-hire comes down to whether the company needs the skills of the employee, the money to hire the employee, and has a job open for the employee.

In addition, hiring a boomerang can be political, and the re-integration of a boomerang precarious. The players may have changed since the employee left and interpersonal relationships may have changed too. Dynamics may also prove tense if the boomerang leapfrogged over an incumbent employee, who might feel slighted by not getting the job.