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Boomerang employees: potential risks and rewards for firms

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 25 May 2023

After the jobs-shifting trend of the COVID-19 years, workers are angling to return to their previous employers – but rehiring former staff needs to be far from a rubber-stamping exercise.

First came the Great Resignation. Now, if recent research from LinkedIn is anything to go by, we have entered the Age of the Boomerang.

At the end of March, the networking platform’s recruitment news hub Get Hired pointed out that the rate of UK workers returning to former employers had risen from 1.9% in 2019 to 2.23% last year. In sectoral terms, financial services had the third-highest level of boomeranging staff.

Subsequent findings from a survey conducted by Robert Walters indicate that the workforce’s appetite for boomeranging is even more widespread than the LinkedIn data suggests. According to the recruiter, 71% of UK workers are considering returning to their pre-COVID-19 employers after realising the grass isn’t greener at their latest pasture. 

A quarter of respondents admit that they have already put out the feelers to previous employers to scope out the potential for a return, while almost half (49%) say that the reasons they cited for leaving in the first place – mainly pay, purpose and flexibility – are no longer relevant.

However, 44% of managers said they were hesitant to rehire a previous employee, prompting the question whether rehiring former staff is something to avoid or a positive step in filling recruitment gaps in your workforce.

High expectations

Gleeson Recruitment Group Accounting and Finance Divisional Director Rob Anderson takes a caution-first stance. He stresses that, in terms of optics, internal communications and culture, boomerang employees pose “considerable” risks to firms.

“Are they returning to the same role? If not, and they are offered an enhanced position, that could be seen as a reward for disloyalty,” he warns. “If the return is relatively quick, it’s unlikely the firm’s practices would have changed significantly – but a lengthy gap may result in high expectations not being met, as the internal workings of the firm have moved on.”

In Anderson’s view, firms must tackle major questions around motivation: “Is the employee coming back with their tail between their legs, or have they gained and developed vital skills that can empower the former employer? Understanding the original drivers for exit, and the subsequent appetite for return, will require very careful examination.”

Chris Goulding, Managing Director of specialist finance, accountancy and HR recruiter Wade Macdonald, believes employers should be pragmatic in their approach. “Boomerang hires eliminate many of the technicalities, costs and uncertainty that come with new hires,” he says. “They save time and money on training, as their familiarity with the business systems and people – even if slightly outdated – enables them to hit the ground running with organisational processes and client relations.”

Goulding highlights the expense of replacing an employee; typically it will cost a business 200% of a leaver’s salary in training and outsourcing fees. “Amid the worst skills and talent shortage that the UK has seen in our lifetime,” he says, “hiring an employee already equipped with the relevant training and knowledge is a no-brainer.”

However, he is also aware of the need for caution. “Boomerang hires can trigger friction among staff, who may suspect a lack of loyalty and increased compensation – risking more leavers. So, it’s crucial that employers read the room. In the current jobs market, your existing staff are your best asset and should be prioritised as such.”

Developed skill set

“In our experience, the benefits outweigh the risks,” says Caroline King, Director of Permanent Solutions at accounting and finance recruiter Robert Half. “For example, when a candidate returns to a previous employer, the skills they have developed in another firm will likely be hugely beneficial. This may enable them to look at your systems with a fresh pair of eyes and offer a totally different perspective on your processes.”

“Regardless of how long they have been away, they will be returning with a developed skill set and openness to new ideas that will only benefit the firm on a longer-term basis,” King adds.

Before greenlighting a boomerang manoeuvre, King recommends, a firm should carry out in-depth discussions with as many staff from different departments as possible – especially those that the prospective returnee has never worked with before – to air their thoughts on the matter. That will pave the way for a well-informed, unbiased decision.

If the rehire goes ahead, King says: “Treat the employee as a brand-new member of staff, and ensure they have access to all the onboarding information and activities that a fresh hire would have. A lot can change in a firm quickly, and if these individuals aren’t given the same time investment at the onboarding stage, it will take them longer to get up to speed.”

Any finance systems that have changed during the returnee’s time away should be covered in their re-induction and training plan, King says. But it will also be important to discuss any new skills or tech systems that the individual has developed or experienced since they left, as those insights may be able to bring positive changes to the firm.

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