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Boomerang Employee

When you’re struggling to fill important positions, you may consider reaching out to former employees to see if they’re interested in returning. Or, former employees may contact you with a desire to come back. Like any hire, there are pros and cons—and pitfalls to be avoided—in re-hiring and re-onboarding so-called “boomerang” employees.

What Is a Boomerang Employee?

A boomerang employee is a person who worked for the organization previously and left (typically on good terms), but returns to work there again at a later date.

Historically, leaving an organization voluntarily was often seen as a lack of loyalty. Many companies refused to rehire anyone as a matter of principle, regardless of how well they had previously performed.

However, in recent years, it has become far more typical for people to work for many different organizations throughout their career. Particularly where there are skills gaps in many critical functions, employers have become steadily more comfortable with using the former-employee talent pool and bringing people back on—particularly those who have performed well previously.

Note: A true boomerang employee is typically someone who worked for your organization recently enough that they are remembered by at least some current employees. If they worked there 10 or 15 years ago, it makes sense to treat them like any other prospective new hire.

Why Do Employees Leave Temporarily?

Turnover is natural and to be expected, regardless of the quality of your company and culture. Today’s average employee will work for 12 or more different employers over the course of their career! Even excellent employees who love working at your company may see a variety of reasons to move on, including:

  • A new job opportunity with a significant increase in compensation.
  • A new job opportunity in a more advanced or different role than is available in your company.
  • A personal situation requiring a move away from your location.
  • Leaving the workforce or cutting down on work hours for family or health reasons.

Why Do Boomerang Employees Come Back?

Typically, if a former employee is looking to return to your organization, it is because they had a phenomenal experience working there previously! They left only because they truly felt it was the option they had to choose at the time.

Sometimes they have gained experience and developed new skills that now make them far more competitive for a role they wanted in the first place, but that they didn’t see a way to attain if they stayed in the position they had at the time.

They may even have enjoyed the company as a whole but had a manager or peer that they did not want to continue working with, and are now excited to return to a team they don’t have concerns about.

Whatever the reason, they are typically enthusiastic about the opportunity to return, given that they are usually people who had a great experience the first time around.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Hiring a Boomerang Employee?

Overall, if an employee left under good terms and is considered eligible for rehire, as long as they are qualified for the new role they are applying to, there tend to be more pros than cons to bringing them back on.

Pros of Hiring a Boomerang Employee

Pros of rehiring past employees include:

  • Shorter onboarding period. Former employees are typically already familiar with the culture and operations of your organization. They may require an update on recent changes, and full onboarding for the specifics of their new role will still be necessary, of course; but overall, rehires tend to ramp up in their skill and comfort level at the company and become productive more quickly than first-time employees.
  • Confidence in employee fit and performance. If you rehire a former employee, it is typically because they left in good standing and with high-enough performance to make them a better bet than rolling the dice on an entirely new candidate, whose performance and fit will not be fully known until months into the job. Boomerang employees tend to perform about as well in their second stint with a company as they did the first time around, so if things went well previously, there are few downsides to bringing them back.
  • Tapping into an extra talent pool. In a tight labor market with shortages of a variety of skill sets, being willing to bring someone back opens up a larger candidate pool, which can increase your success in hiring. Why eliminate a group of highly-talented prospective candidates based solely on the fact that you have already worked with them once, especially if you are currently scrambling to find the right people?

Cons of Hiring a Boomerang Employee

There are a couple of potential cons that are worth evaluating when considering a rehire, including:

  • Precedence for leaving. If they left once, they may be more likely to leave again because they have traveled that path before and know how to navigate it effectively. There is some evidence that suggests boomerang employees who leave a second time tend to leave for similar reasons as the first time. While this is potentially concerning, it also suggests there may be some predictability. If you believe the reason for their initial decision to leave has been fully resolved, there may be a lower likelihood of them leaving soon again.
  • Potential resentment from coworkers. Some existing employees who remember the boomerang from their first time with the organization may be frustrated or annoyed that they are being given another chance, particularly if they are brought back at a higher level than when they originally left.

Hiring a Boomerang Employee

The process for hiring a boomerang employee is, by and large, the same as for any other worker. However, there are some specific details that ought to be handled carefully.

Additional Interview Questions

This is significant enough that an entire section is included below for greater detail. There are certain questions that should be asked of a potential boomerang employee that are unnecessary for first-time hires.

Understanding Likely Current Employee Reactions

As mentioned above, there is always the potential for bitter feelings from some current employees toward a rehire, especially if they are brought back on at a higher level than the role they left previously.

It is best to proactively understand current employee perspectives and feelings toward a former employee as you make decisions on whether to hire them, and in what role. Those opinions should not be the only factor, of course; ability to perform the job well should be the key. That said, those perspectives should be known and addressed upfront, especially if it seems that there is a risk of alienating or frustrating current employees by making the rehire.

Insurance, Retirement, and Employee Records

Depending on how long or short a time the former employee has been gone, there may be issues with insurance or retirement plans. For example, for purposes of vesting in retirement plans, do you go by the original date they were hired the first time, or a new hire date, and how is this reflected in your employee records?

There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for how to manage these types of questions; the answers will depend on your company culture, HR policies, and benefit vendors. The goal here is simply to point out the need to carefully consider potential impacts on these benefits, and on the structure of your employee records to support rehiring someone.

Interview Questions to Ask a Boomerang Employee Before Rehiring Them

Though interviews should typically be structured similarly for all applicants for a position, there are some additional questions that should be asked of potential candidates for rehire, including the following.

“Why do you want to come back?”

This is an obviously important question, and is simply a slight variation on a question that all prospective employees should be asked: “Why do you want to work here?” Understanding what has changed in their mind and life since they made the decision to leave your organization will be a critical piece of determining whether it makes sense to make an additional investment in them this time.

“Why did you choose to leave last time, and how likely is that factor to come into play and lead to you leaving again in the near future?”

As mentioned previously, some research suggests that boomerang employees who leave their company a second time tend to leave for similar reasons to the first time they left. Understanding what their original reasoning was and evaluating whether that issue is still at play may give you a clear answer to the question of whether to expect that a rehire will remain with your organization longer this time or not.

“What skills have you developed and what experiences have you gained since you were last with us?”

Again, this is a minor addition to typical questions about skills and experience. Answers may also come from other questions that you ask. But if not, it is especially helpful to ask this if they have been gone a relatively short time but are applying for a higher-level role than the one they left.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Boomerang Employees

Will a boomerang employee leave again?
You can never guarantee that any employee will remain as long as you would like them to, and the same goes for boomerang employees. That said, there has been at least some research suggesting that boomerang employees who leave a second time tend to do so for reasons similar to why they left initially. So, it is wise to understand their reasons for leaving the first time around and evaluate whether those reasons are likely to crop up again in the near future as you make a rehiring decision.
Should boomerang employees be discouraged from reapplying?
Our recommendation is that former employees who left in good standing should not be discouraged from applying (or auto-rejected when they do). If anything, you may even decide it makes sense to proactively maintain contact with past employees! Some organizations maintain “alumni” networks using platforms like LinkedIn, simple email lists, or even websites where former employees can maintain contact with each other and with the organization over time.
Tyler Orr

Tyler Orr

Tyler worked for 2+ years in HR at USAA, a Fortune 100 company, primarily in their HR Career Development Program. Through several rotations, he gained experience in a number of HR functions, including talent management, succession planning, HR project management, intern recruitment, and people analytics. Tyler recently transitioned into a career services role at the University of Tennessee, where he is helping students kick off their careers (often by working closely with HR professionals). He has a masters degree in HR, as well as an MBA, and previously worked for an HR technology firm where he provided consulting services for 60+ companies.

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