There’s no hard data on how frequently employers rehire workers who’ve left to go elsewhere, but “it is growing, and smart companies are the ones pushing it the most.”

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LeBron James has been called a king, a superathlete, a traitor. And now that the basketball megastar has returned to Cleveland and the team he once abandoned, he’s earned a new moniker he may not even know about: boomerang.

That’s as in boomerang employee. And while few will do it with as much fuss and fortune as James, it’s happening more and more often.

There’s no hard data on how frequently employers rehire workers who’ve left to go elsewhere, but “it is growing, and smart companies are the ones pushing it the most,” says Abbie J. Shipp, an associate professor of management at Texas Christian University. “We’re updating the image of what employee/employer relationships look like.”

Experts point to a number of reasons boomeranging is booming: Social media makes it easier for companies to keep track of former employees, and it’s often cheaper to rehire them because firms can bypass the search process. There’s less risk, too. Employers know what they’re getting when they hire a former employee.

Perhaps most important, the old idea of loyalty — from both worker to company and company to worker — has evolved, and employees change jobs and switch career paths more frequently than in the past, says Brian Swider, an assistant professor of business at Georgia Institute of Technology. So leaving a company no longer seems like a betrayal.

“Boomerangs are not common in the classic employment model,” says T. Brad Harris, an assistant professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. “Companies used to have the idea that you need to instill fear in workers — you only have one shot here.”

That is no longer entirely true. For example, Swanson Russell, an advertising agency based in Lincoln, Neb., has about 150 employees, including 12 who left and returned. That’s “an all-time high,” says Brian Boesche, a partner and chief creative officer.

‘Attitudes have changed’

“People worked differently 10 to 15 years ago,” Boesche says. “Attitudes have changed.” In fact, the company recently posted a short video — as a recruitment tool — on its Facebook page consisting solely of interviews with workers who quit at one point and then rejoined the firm.

Nate Custard, a senior writer/producer, was one of those. He moved to a competing advertising agency — which used to be viewed as the ultimate infidelity — after a five-month tenure at Swanson Russell.

Custard, 31, knew some of the staff at the rival firm and wanted to work with some of the bigger clients it served.

“I felt terrible leaving Swanson,” he says. “They had made an investment in me. We had a tough conversation, and I think some feelings were hurt, but they understood. I left on good terms.”

He stayed in touch with his former bosses and colleagues, and after about two years, realized he didn’t want to put in the 80-hour workweeks required at his new job. He looked into rejoining Swanson, where he felt he could have a more balanced work life, and returned almost a year ago.

His words of advice: “It’s about being respectful and not burning any bridges.”
While Boesche says he did not recall any returnees who didn’t work out, that doesn’t mean everyone makes a good boomerang employee.

Reason for leaving

Harris was a co-author of a recent study — Shipp was one of the other authors — on boomerang employees, “Gone Today but Here Tomorrow: Extending The Unfolding Model of Turnover to Consider Boomerang Employees.” It examined an accounting firm of 15,000 employees, where, at the time of the study, 20 percent of the hires were people who had left and returned.

Those who came back more typically had formed a plan for what to do after leaving the job — a pregnancy, going to graduate school or pursuing a specific career goal — than those who quit and never returned.

Harris is also co-author of a study looking at approximately 200 to 300 players who have left and returned to the National Basketball Association over the past several decades.

Not surprisingly, the study found, the most successful returnees were those who left on good terms and of their own choosing, did well at their interim employer and weren’t away too long, so they still understood and fit into the organizational culture.

What are the wrong reasons to return? You miss your friends, or you haven’t given your new job a fair chance, says Roy L. Cohen, a career counselor. Be sure to look hard at why you left, he says.

“If you left because of lack of growth opportunity, a boss with whom you had a rocky relationship or the belief that you were underpaid, there is no guarantee that a return will resolve your relationship beyond the initial honeymoon,” he says.

Eyes wide open

While some employers worry that allowing workers to leave and come back will create a culture where employees feel they can drop in and out at will, Shipp says there is no evidence of this.

“Those who had left once were not more likely to leave again than those who had never left,” she says. In fact, boomerang employees might, in some cases, be more satisfied workers, because “they knew all the good things and all the bad things and came back with their eyes open,” she adds. “It was their choice.”

That was the case with Ché Knight, 28, a senior account executive with the Boston public relations firm Denterlein. In 2011, after working at Denterlein for a little more than a year, she made the jump to a rival company.

Knight says all the articles she read about how millennials advance in their careers urged them to keep their eyes open for opportunities and be ready to leap to other firms to climb up that ladder.

“So I thought my growth trajectory should be quicker and, when I was offered a promotion, why wouldn’t I make the jump?” she says. Although she initially applied to the competitor, it was “very aggressive” in recruiting her, she says.
“My company countered with a very generous offer, but I wanted the promotion. I have a lot of loans, and I wanted the title and the money,” she says.

It didn’t take three weeks until she realized it was a big mistake. The promotion didn’t make up for the fact that she had no mentoring or support. She wanted to return right away, but it took about three months for her boss, with whom she still had a close professional relationship, to make it work.

She has been happily back for almost four years, but acknowledges that “I was very concerned about what my colleagues thought. I would be lying if I didn’t say it was a little awkward at first, but I don’t think there was any resentment.”

A few doors still closed

Not all companies are open to the boomerang idea. Bloomberg LP, a financial software, data and media company, is well known for its closed-door policy to former employees.

“There are exceptions if someone leaves for certain family situations, education, public service or military service, but not to a competitor,” says Ty Trippett, a spokesman for the company. “From the early days, the philosophy was very clear. If you left for a competitor, you were not welcome back.”

And what are the chances that LeBron James will succeed as a boomerang employee? He left his team on his own volition, didn’t spend too much time away and is definitely good at his job, so that all points to success.

However, Harris and his colleagues can’t factor in some of the elements that most returning employees don’t have to contend with — an intense fan base and the national spotlight. What effect they will have on this particular boomerang remains to be seen.