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Why high-HQ companies welcome back boomerang employees

Early in my career, I left a role to work for a competitor. It was my first time giving notice, and I felt simultaneously grown-up and wistful to leave what had been home for three years.

That’s too bad, my manager responded kindly, after I submitted my resignation. Then, after what appeared to be a mild scramble, I was asked to leave that day. Check’s in the mail, and enjoy the two weeks off.

More than a decade later, I still raise an eyebrow over how this played out. There were other factors that prompted my decision to depart in the first place, but my impression of that employer was undoubtedly colored by that experience of being ushered out the door.

There are good business reasons for this approach, especially when someone’s jumping ship for a competitor. Plus, offboarding takes time, energy, and resources away from other employees. But organizational professionals say companies should try harder at sticking the landing; that is, by striving to be a company that employees, even departing ones, remain proud of, evangelize, and possibly even return to someday.

There were other factors that prompted my decision to depart in the first place, but my impression of that employer was undoubtedly colored by that experience of being ushered out the door.

The employee-customer correlation

When a customer shifts their loyalty to another brand, the "dumped" companies try, perhaps with coupons and other incentives, to win them back—or at least get to the root of why they switched. Turns out, applying the same principles of customer service internally, at all phases of the employer-employee relationship, makes it more likely that those who depart will become “return customers.” And that kind of cachet is necessary for attracting the best talent.

“With employees and customers there is a fascinating correlation in that, often, it is OK to part ways because you aren’t right for each other at that time,” says Sarah Reed, who previously led high-performing customer contact centers and is currently Senior Director of Content and Event Marketing at Zendesk.

Meredith Haberfeld, CEO of ThinkHuman and frequent consultant for organizations on the topic of human intelligence (HQ), calls this a “colleagues for life” approach. In addition to being a feel-good, inclusive idea, it signals overall health and strength of an organization; which people on the outside, including potential employees, investors, and customers, are definitely keeping tabs on.

The benefits of bringing “boomerang” employees back

If attrition is a costly problem for employers, it stands to reason that boomerang employees—those who leave for a period and come back—are just the opposite. They come back with new skills and fresh perspectives, and companies only stand to benefit. And, cynics, take heart; Haberfeld says it’s rare for someone to come back to an old job for perks. Millennials, Gen Y, and Gen Z overtly prioritize both personal and professional growth, and they aren’t inclined to return for free snacks.

“The workforce is mobile, and talented people move around to gain experience, and to grow,” Haberfeld says.

The rise of humanistic, high-HQ environments means applying a growth mindset to the organization itself. If you’re a company that encourages employees to bring their whole selves to work, that also means developing the maturity to understand that someone’s whole self might need development and fulfillment somewhere else. Plus, it means seeing how the organization can grow as a result. It’s always important to take note if that person left for performance issues or a values mismatch, and diagnosing missteps in the process is a given for any healthy organization, Haberfeld says. But if an employee leaves because of little upward mobility from their current role, letting them gain that experience elsewhere can be a win-win, if they return.

If you’re a company that encourages employees to bring their whole selves to work, that also means developing the maturity to understand that someone’s whole self might need development and fulfillment somewhere else.

Valuing short-term employees is part of the long game

It might seem like a no-brainer, but ex-employers (and ex-employees) can still get lumped into the same bucket as ex-romantic partners; you parted ways for a reason, providing little incentive to keep the door open. There’s certainly a generational divide, as well—many of us have a hard time imagining our parents leaving an employer before receiving their gold watch, let alone leaving and coming back. But in 2018, the average time spent at the best companies to work for is less than two years, according to Haberfeld, making alumni a more important variable in a company’s culture—and its reputation.

Jacob Meltzer, a Zendesk boomerang employee, observed that companies people return to (or never leave in the first place) have achieved what was historically quite difficult: alignment between management and workers over their collective purpose, mission, culture, and values. Makes sense, as companies with high HQ have successfully

“Their leaders have more than business savvy, they are focused on supporting the greatness in people,” Haberfeld confirms. “In the same way customers come back to a brand that serves their values, employees do the same. Employers who enable people to be the best version of themselves have to do a lot less employer branding because the viral employee experience speaks for itself.”

Keep the door open

To build the muscle for a positive viral employee experience, Haberfeld says that when people leave, high HQ companies should:

  • Say thank you.
  • Offer to be a reference.
  • Collect feedback in exit interviews.
  • Communicate openness about the possibility of returning.
  • Invite the employee to join an alumni network on Facebook or LinkedIn.

High HQ companies can also continue to nurture alumni by:

  • Open select employee events to alumni, such as conferences with panel discussions, mentoring and networking, special events, such as a Facebook Live chat featuring a current employee and an alum, or even simple happy hours.
  • Share profiles of successful alumni in the alumni network, or create mentoring and networking opportunities.
  • Provide corporate discounts.
  • Ask alumni to refer family and friends or incentivize successful job referrals.

It’s not what you say, but how you make them feel

Part of what differentiates high-performing companies from average ones is the amount of attention paid to the lasting feeling their organization creates, Haberfeld observes. That resonates for me; after spending years with my former employer, one of the things I remember most is that surprising, abrupt last day.

“High HQ companies leave people honored for their contribution, and continue to invest in the relationship with those who have left,” Haberfeld says. “They offer to be a reference, wish them well, and don't give them attitude in their last days or weeks or hold a grudge. Then they put effort into their online alumni network, open certain events for alumni, and invest in the powerful shared history, identity and pride.”

"Part of what differentiates high-performing companies from average ones is the amount of attention paid to the lasting feeling their organization creates.” - Meredith Haberfeld

Our hometowns, states or countries, favorite sports teams, and colleges often tap into the power of shared history, further bonding us to those places and organizations. I think employers could stand to join that club by taking advantage of the technology and social tools that allow us all to stay in touch. Though we don’t often decorate our workspaces with swag from our previous employers, it doesn’t make our experience with them any less important.