In the ever-elusive search for talent, organizations are reaching for a new tool in the talent management quiver — the boomerang hire. Boomerang hiring is a talent management approach where employers re-hire past employees to return to the firm.
Virtually all employers engage in boomerang hiring to some extent. On the surface, this seems like a simple and cost-effective way to bring in workers who have already proven themselves and, therefore, are very likely to be successful again. Organizations dealing with industry-wide skills shortages, such as those in information technology or bio-sciences, have embraced this approach.
However, if boomerang hiring is merely a reactive, quick-fix solution, it may be a fad that will wither when the next new approach comes along. Strategic boomerang recruiting, on the other hand, provides cost-effective access to talent that requires less training and orientation.
The key determinant of whether this type of recruiting is beneficial depends on whether employers employ a reactive
approach or a strategic approach.
Reactive boomerang hiring is the indiscriminate re-hiring of past employees who either re-apply or are solicited by line managers to fill immediate talent shortages. The key focus of this approach is a response to created job vacancies. Sometimes these workers realize the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence and want to return to their previous employer. Other times, these are retirees who realize they are not ready for the lifestyle change that comes with the transition to not working.
Other times, as a result of restructuring and downsizing, workers who have left the firm find themselves out of work when things take a turn for the worse at the new organization.
Strategic boomerang recruiting, by contrast, is when employers actively reach out to past employees to try to persuade them to return to the firm. Employers are far less likely to engage in strategic boomerang recruiting (less than 50 per cent), according to our research, but organizations engaging in strategic boomerang recruiting find this to be an effective approach to fill specific skills needs with pre-qualified candidates.
Benefits and pitfalls
While different organizations have embraced boomerang hiring for different reasons, there are common benefits and pitfalls. Firstly, industries such as the teaching industry have embraced boomerang hiring by allowing retired employees to come back part-time. In the teaching profession, this has certainly made it easier for school boards to ensure they have a competent roster of supply teachers.
However, this short-term relief may create a seismic shift for school boards when the baby boom generation leaves the workforce entirely. Until that time, new teachers may be unable to secure teaching jobs or gain experience, and when vacancies are finally created, many classrooms will be taught by newly minted teachers.
When boomerang hiring is conducted for convenience rather than strategic goals, it has the potential to compromise the long-term success of a firm, even though it meets short-term needs. This has been seen on many occasions where manufacturing line managers, desperate to address skills shortages, may pressure HR to bring back former employees. If they do so without assessing cultural fit, the employee may eventually quit again, once she is reminded of the reasons she left in the first place.
While reactive boomerang hiring can be problematic, strategic boomerang recruiting appears to be more successful because it involves a deeper scrutiny of past employees before an organization actively solicits them to return.
It’s about recruiters connecting with HR to identify past employees who not only have strong skills but were also a good cultural fit before they left an organization. For example, the reasons for leaving the organization were related to a lack of internal career opportunities, problems with a difficult supervisor or external circumstances, rather than fit with the organization’s culture.
Strategic boomerang recruiting actively targets only ideal candidates — those with the needed skills and who fit with the organization. One organization, for example, exemplified strategic boomerang recruiting when one employee who left a subsidiary of the organization as a result of limited career opportunities was later rehired as the CEO.
Employees who had a very strong cultural fit with the organization are more likely to again be strong contributors to the firm. On the other hand, when reactive boomerang hiring is done to address a skills shortage, employers are quickly reminded of the reason the person left — perhaps because he did not quite fit the organization’s culture. Difficulties may quickly resurface, with managers asking themselves why they brought this employee back.
Alternatively, a repeated misfit might soon be experienced by the hire himself, who will resign again once reminded of why he left in the first place. Employees who did not fit before are soon found to not fit again.
Strategic boomerang recruiting has the potential to be an exceptionally powerful HR tool. When organizations track the skills and organizational fit of strong employees and set them free to work and train with competitor organizations, the return of those employees to the firm has the potential to:
• send a message to other employees in the firm that this is an employer of choice
• bring organization-specific skills and industry knowledge to the employer that are a source of competitive advantage
• require far less cultural integration than other unproven new hires.
Organizations that successfully engage in strategic boomerang recruiting appear to:
• identify top employees in terms of both skill and cultural fit
• retain contact with such people after they leave through social networks and social media sites such as LinkedIn
• restrict boomerang recruiting to a pre-identified pool of former employees
• see the departure of such employees as a valuable training ground for their return.
Angus Duff and Salvador Barragan are assistant professors in the School of Business and Economics at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. They can be contacted at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org respectively.
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