In the past, people who chose to leave a business were considered gone for good. Today, progressive businesses are thinking differently about rehiring.
Editor’s note: At the start of the month HRM shared an article outlining the legal considerations to keep in mind when rehiring former employees. In this article, we speak with experts and those who’ve successfully introduced boomerang employee policies into their hiring culture to find out more about the benefits.
There was once an attitude in business that said anybody who chose to leave was disloyal. The minute they handed in their resignation, they would become persona non grata, no longer welcome inside the walls of the organisation.
That point of view is now broadly recognised as somewhat ignorant. After all, in a competitive business environment, who would dare cut ties with individuals who boast experience, and knowledge of the business and its culture, and are talented enough to attract the attention of others?
“Most thoughtful, contemporary companies have changed their thinking in two ways,” says Rhonda Brighton-Hall, founder and director of MWAH (Making Work Absolutely Human) and chair of AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Panel.
“One is the fact that you don’t keep an employee forever. You expect staff members will enjoy their time in the business and do great work, and then, if it isn’t working out or they can pick up better development or opportunities somewhere else, that’s okay,” says Brighton-Hall.
“If they come back, they’ll come back even more skilful. That alumni network suddenly becomes incredibly important.”
The second major change in thinking, says Brighton-Hall, is in the way people think about companies.
Instead of perceiving a business as being hidden behind walls, they now think of it as an inclusive community. Individuals don’t have to be engaged in a 40-hour week, every week, to be part of that community.
“And so, boomerang employees play a very important role in an organisation’s community,” she says. “They can be your biggest ambassadors. There are some very successful companies that have alumni who are strong promoters and massive advocates in the market and who recommend the employer to other talented people.”
Don’t hoard your talent
One organisation with a powerful and supportive strategy around boomerang employees is workforce management software business Kronos.
To illustrate the value and logic of a powerful employee satisfaction strategy – one that goes as far as ensuring leavers are treated with the deepest respect and welcomed back into new roles whenever possible – Charlie DeWitt, managing director ANZ/SEA at Ultimate Kronos Group (UKG), draws comparisons between boomerang employees and America’s NFL.
“My team is the New England Patriots. They built a dynasty and won six Super Bowls,” he says. “But one of the interesting facts is that only two people in the Patriots have been a part of all six Super Bowls – the coach and the quarterback.
“The success was all about the organisation and its processes and energy. The people in that organisation would become superstars. And what happens to superstars in the NFL? Everybody else wants them.
“The same happens in business, but it doesn’t mean you begin to fail once those people leave.”
Alison Hernandez, managing director APAC at Randstad Risesmart, knows well the value of a strong employer brand. The business she and Catriona Byrne built, Sageco, was acquired by Randstad Risesmart in 2016. Sageco, a provider of career transition services, was attractive as an acquisition partly because of its powerful employer brand.
“It’s all about remembering that the employee experience can be created on the way into the organisation, during an individual’s time with the organisation, and, importantly, it also should continue when they exit the business,” says Hernandez.
“When you do it well, you’re creating a culture of trust and respect, and you’re leaving the door ajar.
“People can go off and upskill, acquire new experience and expertise, and achieve new things in their careers. Then, potentially, they can bounce back a few years down the track, bringing with them all of those new skills and experience,” she says.
When a person exits, says Hernandez, the business must take a deep dive into why they decided to leave, to continue to improve the business itself. But no matter the reason, and no matter if the person is resigning, accepting redundancy or retiring, there could always be an opportunity to bring them back full-time, part-time or as a mentor.
Brighton-Hall believes it is essential to keep channels of communication open once the individual has left. Many leading businesses, she says, create closed Facebook groups, or something similar, for their alumni. This ensures the opportunity for two-way communication even years after the individual has departed. It also means the business can keep alumni updated around new developments and opportunities. It keeps the business relevant in the minds of its alumni.
“When you do it well, you’re creating a culture of trust and respect, and you’re leaving the door ajar.” – Alison Hernandez, managing director APAC at Randstad Risesmart
“Google does this very well. They have a closed group for ex-Googlers so they can talk to the company and their old colleagues,” says Brighton-Hall.
“The business doesn’t have walls around it – it’s a community.”
Do it well, says DeWitt, and the payoff can be enormous. The value of continuing the employer experience during and after the separation of an individual from the business is far greater than the sum of its parts.
For example, it offers those who remain within the business greater confidence that they too are highly valued.
“We’ve been growing like crazy,” says DeWitt. “That can be attributed to the fact that our people always give a little extra. They return an email a little quicker. They take a little more time on a proposal. They do a little more to prepare for an interaction. If a customer complains, they drill deeper into the problem to get to the root cause, rather than offering a surface solution.
“Most importantly, everybody is looking out for everybody else at Kronos. I’ve been in companies where the product team just worries about the product, and the marketing people just worry about marketing. Here, you’ve got people backing you up all over the place,” says DeWitt.
So why would people leave an employer like Kronos? Because they become superstars and other businesses hunt them down, says DeWitt. Sometimes it’s about money. Sometimes it’s about faster career advancement. It’s important to accept that it will happen, he says.
“When a colleague comes to me and talks about [leaving], my first question is whether they are running away from something or running to something,” says DeWitt.
“If they’re running away, I want to know about it. I want to address it to make sure it’s not a problem for other people going forward.
“I tell them they’re great and I’d love them to stay, but sometimes people have to make moves. If they must go, it’s with my blessing and with mutual respect – they’re graduating from Kronos, on to the next thing. If they were top-notch and left on good terms, and they decide they want to come back some time, I’ll always look for something for them.”
Around five years ago, executive coach Julianne Kuhlmann left Hernandez’s Sageco business because her own business was ramping up. She’d run her own, small consulting practice at the same time as working with Sageco and wanted to give that business a shot as it began to grow.
“When I left, there was an enormous amount of respect on both sides,” says Kuhlmann. “I had worked closely with [Sageco founders] Alison and Catriona, and I had the utmost respect for both of them.
The way they managed their business, back then and into the future after the Risesmart acquisition, was collaborative and people-centred. I have similar values, so there was never any animosity.”
Recently, when she was told Risesmart was looking to hire, and as COVID-19 was introducing uncertainty into her own business, she leapt at the opportunity.
“I felt a real connection with the people side of the business, even though I wasn’t familiar with Risesmart. Knowing Alison and Catriona were still on board gave me great confidence about the culture.”
Importantly, Kuhlmann accepted she was returning to a very different business, one that had transformed from a small, nationally focused company to a global enterprise.
This, Brighton-Hall says, is vital to understand. As businesses bring back boomerang staff, both the business and the individual will likely be different. The individual might be more experienced, with greater capabilities and a more senior outlook. The organisation might be more advanced in its operations and processes, and might have a different focus, product or service offering.
As a result, the boomerang employee must be onboarded as with any other new hire, to set them up for success.
“It’s likely the next version of the individual will be even better for the business,” says Brighton-Hall. “People offer so many opportunities to their employers as they move between jobs. That’s why it’s so important to stay connected, or you miss out on that opportunity.”
A version of this article first appeared in the November 2020 edition of HRM magazine.
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