When Employees and Companies Get Back Together

Cambridge-based Forrester Research hands out boomerangs when employees start a second stint working for the company.
Cambridge-based Forrester Research hands out boomerangs when employees start a second stint working for the company.
Forrester

A few weeks after John Dalton began working at Cambridge-based Forrester Research in 2012, at a quarterly company-wide meeting, he was introduced to the entire Forrester team. And he was given a little memento as well, in the form of a carved wooden boomerang.

Forrester’s vice president of talent acquisition, April Eldred, said a few new hires get a boomerang every year. The reason: They aren’t technically new. The gift represents that the recipient is what the business world commonly refers to as a “boomerang” hire—an employee starting a second stint with their company.

A number of companies in Boston have systems in place aimed to boost these sorts of hires. At Forrester, a global technology research firm, about 5 percent of each year’s new hires are making their return, Eldred said, and other Boston-area companies also keep their doors open to former colleagues.

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The benefits for any company are clear: The costs of training and immersing a new hire—which can often be quite high for somebody entirely unfamiliar with a new company—are significantly cut down when somebody is already familiar with the company. Beyond that, companies also perceive “boomerangs” as known quantities, taking some of the risk from hiring. There’s also a chance the employee picked up new skills since leaving that they could not have gained in their former position.

As for employees, there might be a number of reasons they’d return. In Dalton’s case, he left Forrester in 2004 to work for a video startup and was gone for eight years before coming back. By the time those eight years had expired, he had begun to miss working for a larger organization. The new opportunity at Forrester also meant the opportunity to assume a management role as a research director; when he’d left in 2004, he had worked as an analyst. But, he said, a management role at Forrester was more appealing than a management role elsewhere, because of his familiarity with the organization.

“It was a place I knew well and liked a lot,” he said. “Knowing a company, knowing the lay of the land, knowing the culture, having some institutional knowledge—that makes it easier to manage.”

Others, however, might find themselves looking back to their old jobs much more quickly. Josh Allen works as a sales director for LogMeIn, a Boston company that offers cloud-based services to businesses. Allen had been an early employee at LogMeIn and worked there for five years when the itch to join a new startup took hold. He left LogMeIn in 2011 and knew he had made a mistake within 90 days, he said.

“Being on the outside, I really got a sense for what (LogMeIn) accomplished as a company,” he said. (LogMeIn is publicly-traded and employs more than 600 people.)

Within five months, Allen was back with LogMeIn. He said people were surprised but pleased to see him when he returned. While leaving the job and coming back so quickly might inspire questions about whether he’d look to find a new opportunity again, he said the company hasn’t shown that. That might be because of the frank and honest conversations he had to have in order to not only leave the company, but to come back, he said.

“There hasn’t been a single time somebody’s brought up that I could be a flight risk,” he said. “We’ve established a really high level of trust.”

Dena Upton, director of talent acquisition at LogMeIn, said that is common when people leave the company. “It’s always very amicable when people leave,” she said.

LogMeIn looks to build on that positivity, Upton said, through its alumni program. The company sends out a newsletter to past employees that include updates on the company and its products—as well as any job openings. It also hosts events for former employees to come and network.

Upton said the program serves several purposes. First, it could help employees back into the fold. (Allen did not return to his job through the program, instead speaking directly with his manager.) Even if a former employee isn’t interested in a job, sharing openings with them could also could net a referral from that employee, whose judgment the company is likely to trust. Finally, Upton said, it’s important to let former employees know about company news because the company is always hopeful the former employee’s new company could become a LogMeIn customer.

Boston public relations agency SHIFT Communications also actively looks to rehire former employees. While HR director Leah Ciappenelli said the company does not have a former policy, the goal of creating “boomerangs” is built into how the company operates. Managers are trained to not take any employee’s leaving as personal, she said, and the company also tells employees as they leave that they are welcome back whenever—even if it’s within a month.

Ciappenelli said these sorts of policies are important for creative industries like PR, which tend to have a high degree of employee attrition. She said the company has already brought back one employee this year, and has seen five return in recent years.

While most companies and employees today know not to burn bridges at the end of the relationship, rehiring policies might have seemed out of place in the past, when the stereotype of a career involved an employee settling into one company for most of their adult life and working their way up that business’s ladder. Dalton, the Forrester rehire, said his parents worried about his well-being when he told them he was returning to his former company. “It used to be that careers followed a (one-way) path,” he said. “That going back would look like some kind of a failure.”

However, they are far more fitting for today’s business world, wherein employees only stay at a company for about 4.4 years at a time.

At SHIFT, Ciappenelli also suggested today’s technology could play a role in corporate mindsets toward returning employees. For example, many colleagues remain connected on social media long after they leave a company. “It’s impossible not to stay in touch,” she said, noting that the company’s rehires generally start with word traveling up the corporate grapevine that a former employee is unhappy in their new position.