By Rebecca Knight // This article was originally posted on hbr.org.
The idea of boomerang employees — workers who voluntarily leave a job at an organization and then rejoin that same organization at a later date — is gaining more and more acceptance from hiring managers and in the labor force. If you’re one of these employees, how should you handle your comeback? What’s the best way to get back into the fold? Do you try to pick up where you left off? And what do you say to people about why you quit in the first place and why you’re back?
What the Experts Say
The increasing acceptance of boomerang employees is partly due to the “tight job market,” according to Michael Watkins, chair of Genesis Advisers, professor at IMD, and author of The First 90 Days. “It’s natural for companies to look for employees who have a track record,” he says. “Former employees are known quantities.” For both workers and employers, the boomerang represents “a positive development,” says Karen Dillon, coauthor of several best-selling titles, including How Will You Measure Your Life? “You’re choosing to come back, which means the company wants you back,” she says. And while the process of assimilating to your new but familiar surroundings needn’t “be overorchestrated,” it’s wise to put thought and care into how to reestablish yourself. Here are some ideas.
There are many reasons why you might decide to return to your old employer, according to Watkins. You might have “realized the culture was wonderful and you miss it.” Or maybe you “were attracted by a great offer but it didn’t pan out.” Perhaps you originally left because you “felt dead-ended in your career and now have an opportunity to come back at a higher level.” Regardless, being a boomerang employee means that “you’ve been given a do-over,” Dillon says. “Hopefully, you’re coming back in an elevated position, so you need to change the boundaries and reestablish yourself as a more senior person in the organization,” she says. As you’re meeting new colleagues and remeeting old ones, highlight that “you’ve had development opportunities and a new growth experience” — whether it was a job in a new industry, a stint in a different part of the world, or graduate school — and that “you’re happy to be back” to apply “what you’ve learned.”
“People will absolutely ask you” about why you originally resigned, so it’s wise to construct a narrative that answers their questions, Watkins says. Your explanation ought to be honest and candid — to a point. “There is nothing to be gained by saying anything negative,” particularly if you were unhappy in your job. “No one wants to hear about how bad the company was when you left,” Dillon says. After all, “you voted with your feet by coming back.” If a colleague presses you on the issue, “look forward, not backward” and “imagine that someone is recording your response and will report it back to your colleagues.” In other words, make sure “there’s integrity in your answer.” The same goes for talking about why you left your other organization. “Life is long,” she adds. “You never know the twists and turns in the road and who you are going to work with again.”
Reset colleagues’ expectations…
When you left, “people had a certain view of you and your capabilities,” Watkins says. Now that you’re back, you need to demonstrate — in both your approach to the job and your office demeanor — that “you have had new experiences and you’ve grown.” This can be “especially challenging if you’re brought back into lead your former peers or maybe even your former boss,” he says. “But the fact that you’ve been away” and presumably have learned a lot in the process “is an asset.” Dillon recommends being “a bit more formal and reserved in your behavior, at least at first,” in order to showcase how “you’ve matured.” Your colleagues “will either see you with fresh eyes or the same eyes within the first few weeks,” she adds.
…And reset your own, as well
Your coworkers aren’t the only ones who need to adjust their expectations. “You remember the organization exactly as you left it,” Dillon says. But in the meantime, “power has shifted, people have come and gone, and your colleagues have had new challenges and have grown too.” You need to acknowledge that “the context has changed” and learn the new lay of the land. Watkins likens the experience of being a boomerang employee to that of an expatriate returning to their native country after a few years. “The country has changed, and you’ve changed,” he says. “There will be aspects of the culture and processes that are familiar, but don’t be disappointed if what you come back to is different from what you remember.”
The best way to “get up to speed quickly,” according to Dillon, is through a series of “onboarding conversations” with managers and coworkers. “Show interest in the organization as it is now,” she says. “Find out how it has changed. And ask, ‘What have you tried that works? And what hasn’t worked?’ Don’t assume you know.” These conversations are also “a good chance to express your eagerness to do new things by demonstrating your interest, skills, and capabilities.” Again, it comes down to “having awareness that things are not likely to be the same,” Watkins says. Whether you’re familiarizing yourself with new processes or new people, there will be a learning curve.
Network around the company
Perhaps the biggest potential pitfall of returning to your old organization is that it’s easy to “fall into your old habits and patterns,” say of “eating lunch with the same old gang” and “socializing with the same old people,” Dillon says. To ensure that doesn’t happen, make a conscious effort to network around the company. You must resist the temptation to “gravitate toward the familiar,” Watkins says. Summon “the mental discipline to think, ‘If I were really brand-new here, what would I be doing?’” Think about “the alliances you’d need to build and the people you’d need to connect with,” he says. Beware, too, that because it’s likely that you are coming back to your employer with higher status, “the politics of an organization changes at different levels.”
Your colleagues “will be looking to you for new perspectives and approaches,” Dillon says. “You now see the world from a different set of eyes.” But sharing your newfound knowledge requires a deft touch. “You need to find ways to contribute to the conversation without smothering it” by showing off “your newfangled ways,” she says. Be subtle. Say things like, “In the past, I had good luck with this approach.” Or, “One thing that really struck me about my last organization was how we did this.” Avoid gratuitous criticisms, Watkins adds. You need to strike a “balance, bringing in ideas from the outside without causing” others to think “that you’ve gone away and become too big for your britches,” he says. You don’t want to “imply that you’ve see it done better at other places and now you’re back to fix a mess.”
And yet sometimes you really have been brought back to fix a mess. “If you’re entering a turnaround situation,” you need to be prepared to “inject new ideas” and make some tough decisions right away, Watkins says. On the other hand, “if things are pretty good in the organization,” you ought to “pace yourself” and take your time getting reacquainted with the company. “Don’t shortchange the learning process” with your eagerness to hit the ground running. “Engage in dialogue with people, rather than going in with guns blazing,” he says. “Focus on the way you’re going to lead as opposed to exactly what you’re going to do.”
Principles to Remember
- Project maturity by acting more formal and reserved in your first few weeks on the job to showcase how you’ve grown.
- Highlight your new, fresh perspective by offering ideas from the outside without criticizing your new (old) employer.
- Take your time getting reacquainted with the company. Focus on how you’re going to lead as opposed to exactly what you’re going to do.
- Assume that the company is the same since you left. Engage in a series of onboarding conversations to learn the new lay of the land.
- Fall into your old habits and patterns; make a conscious effort to network around the company.
- Dwell on the reasons you left in the first place. But do make sure you’ve constructed a narrative that explains why you originally resigned.
Case Study #1: Reestablish yourself as a senior leader in the organization by being generous with your knowledge
After working at the Bateman Group, the San Francisco–based PR agency for three years, Amy Ziari left the company because she got the “startup bug” and wanted professional experiences beyond PR.
But she ultimately missed Bateman’s culture and its emphasis on mentorship. She returned in 2015. “While my career path has not been a normal one, and I’m glad I left — I’ll never wonder ‘What if?’ — I’m even gladder I came back,” Amy says.
She says that returning to her former employer was “the best professional decision” she ever made.
Upon returning, Amy first needed to adjust her understanding of Bateman. “One of the most attractive aspects of returning was that the company had grown considerably while retaining most of the same senior leadership team I was familiar with,” she says. “So, for me, it was a best-case scenario: The ethos and values of the company were the same, while the success of the company and opportunities within it had expanded.”
Still, there were many new things to get used to. She had a different set of clients, and the company had established many new processes and programs while she was away. “There were a lot of new resources and documentation aimed at helping staff with various parts of their job that simply didn’t exist when I was there the first time.”
Second, Amy worked to reestablish herself as a senior leader in the organization. When she left Bateman, her title had been senior associate. She came back as a director of media strategy and content. “I jumped at any opportunity to do great work and show [senior leadership] they’d made the right choice in bringing me back,” says Amy, who has since been promoted to VP.
She also made sure to share her new outlook and knowledge. During her years away from the company, she learned a great deal about search engine optimization and search engine marketing, “Those aren’t topics that most people at our agency had experience with,” she says. “When people ask for advice in those areas, I volunteer myself,” she adds. “People are generally really thankful for your help.”
When colleagues asked her why she left, she was honest. “I told them the truth, which is that I loved the company but wanted the experience of working at a startup,” she says.
The experience has also had a positive impact on how she manages. “I now talk to my direct reports about avoiding career regrets and how important it is for their life, career, and long-term happiness,” she says. “The fact is, most people are eventually going to leave the company, so it’s better to leverage this fact rather than fear it.”
Case Study #2: Make an effort to network around the company, and strive to be seen as a resource
Bridget Forney enjoyed working at her first employer, Profiles, the Baltimore-based PR agency. But in 2013, after five years at the company, she resigned. “It was my first job out of college, and while it was my dream job, I wanted to expand my capabilities, learn more about the PR industry, and grow my network nationally beyond Baltimore,” she says.
And she did. After she left, Bridget worked in several other marketing firms. She managed crisis communications, ran PR for big national brands, and worked in B2B and B2C.
In July 2017 she made the decision to boomerang back to Profiles. “A few women I worked with previously were still there, so the thought of rejoining them was both familiar and exciting,” she explains. “Suddenly, the timing was right.”
She negotiated with the leadership team to come back in a more senior position. “I knew I could make a difference and make the company stronger with [my] added capabilities and connections,” she says.
When Bridget left Profiles in 2013, she had been an account executive and social media strategist. She returned as the company’s vice president. One of her top priorities, she says, was proving that she’s “not, for lack of a better phrase, a kid anymore.”
During her first few weeks on the job, she had many onboarding conversations to learn new processes and protocols, as well as to understand her role in new team and management meetings, which the company hadn’t had before.
She says she has worked hard to reestablish herself as a leader by getting to know her colleagues at the company — not just her coworkers from the old days.
“I can relate to everyone in the company since I began at Profiles as a junior account executive and have done everything from running packages and calling media to rubbing elbows with Baltimore’s elite and planning big marketing activations for clients.”
Bridget says she wants to be seen as a resource. “I make myself available to everyone and engage with the team on accounts to offer support, experience, and knowledge, so everyone benefits.”
So far, she says, the transition has been relatively seamless. “I think getting to know a new team and finding my place within the group dynamic will be a work in progress, until one day I’ll just fit,” she says.
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