Chris Thorson, age 55, is very busy. He has a side hustle making Scandinavian knives; he’s a high school volunteer mountain bike coach in Minneapolis; and he’s board chair of the nonprofit National Center for Youth Development.
He’s also a boomerang employee.
What is a boomerang employee? The typical boomerang voluntarily left their employer and eventually decides to return. Boomerangs come back after putting in time at other organizations, or they may return to their company after retiring. (Think legendary quarterback Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, although his “retirement” lasted only six weeks.)
Boomerangs include all adult workers at different stages in their career, but the option of returning to a previous employer is often particularly attractive to experienced workers 50 years and older, as well as recent retirees.
Take Thorson’s experience. He worked for Pictura Graphics in Golden Valley, Minn., early in his career as an account executive. Pictura specialized in creating custom graphics for conventions and trade shows. Thorson left 18 years ago–around the time his oldest son was born—to work on the creative side with various advertising and branding agencies. Pictura’s longtime owner recruited Thorson during the pandemic to join his new leadership team. Thorson accepted (and his oldest son is off to college in the fall).
He has a wealth of accumulated experience to bring to the job. Thorson primarily focuses on improving scheduling and workflow to get jobs done in an orderly manner. The company has significantly expanded its graphic design products, services, and customer base since he last worked there. “I came back in a completely different role, and with technology the company has changed,” he says. “I’ve always said, ‘if I’m not learning I’m not growing.’”
The data on boomerangs is scattered and not particularly deep, but it’s safe to say the practice is on the rise with the tight labor market. For example, LinkedIn looked at the activity on its professional platform and calculated boomerangs accounted for 4.5% of all new hires among companies in 2021, up from 3.9% in 2019. Surveys in recent years suggest rehires account for 10% to 20% of all hires. Simply put, companies need skilled employees.
“I think it’s a good strategy, maintaining good relations with employees and letting them know that they are welcomed back,” says David Delong, president of the consulting firm Smart Workforce Strategies and author of several books, including “Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce.”
There are several advantages for employers to hiring former employees, especially experienced workers. For one thing, they understand the organization’s culture. For another, boomerangs have gained insights from working elsewhere and they can bring new ideas into the company.
That is the experience of Ashish Shah, president of Forgeahead Solutions, and information technology services and consulting firm headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., with most of its employees in India. Shah has long practiced staying in touch with former employees and, if they eventually come back, he finds their added know-how a real benefit.
“I’ve always believed boomerang employees are our best employees,” he says.
His experience isn’t unusual. At least that’s the conclusion of a study published by five scholars last year in the Academy of Management Journal. “In With the Old? Examining When Boomerang Employees Outperform New Hires” the scholars looked into data covering more than 2,000 boomerang hires and 10,000 new hires over an eight-year period in a large (unidentified) healthcare organization. They found that boomerangs often outperformed new hires because of their familiarity with how to get things done in an organization.
“Specifically, we argue that boomerangs differ from all other hiring sources because, when they enter the organization, they are already familiar with the social system, norms and routines governing the coordination of work and flow of resources in the firm,” they write.
For employees thinking about leaving a company, it makes sense to actively stay in contact with former bosses and colleagues. Network with people you know at your former company.
“You want them to see you. Find a way to keep you in their minds,” says Ramien R. Pierre, director for the Institute for Leadership Development and Research for the Executive Leadership Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to placing Blacks into C-Suite jobs at Fortune 500 companies. “You want to know about what the opportunities might be.” Pierre wrote his Ph. D dissertation on boomerang employees at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Recent retirees can also think about becoming boomerangs. The track for highly skilled employees to come out of retirement is common in knowledge-based industries, such as consulting. A growing number of companies in other industries have established formal programs that rehire retirees for projects, to fill for vacations, and other tasks. Other companies rely on informal arrangements.
“I think if means that individuals who are considering coming back to work think about going to their previous employer,” says JR Keller, assistant professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and co-author of the boomerang paper published Academy of Management Journal.
The current tight labor market is pushing managements to embrace rehiring former employees. “They’re desperate for talent,” says DeLong, and if the competition for employees remains fierce, the boomerang phenomenon is good for management looking for workers, for workers desiring a better job, and retirees seeking to return to the job market.
Sounds like a win-win situation, doesn’t it?