Prodigal Employees Find Warm Welcome Back

Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail

As competition for talent heats up, boomerang employees are increasingly valued, WALLACE IMMEN writes

WALLACE IMMEN

Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Having defected from her employer to take another job, Luana Comin-Sartor says she imagined that if she ever asked to return “they’d say sorry, not interested.”

But not only did she get an “unbelievable welcome” when she asked if she could get her old job back at Ernst & Young LLP, her return brought more responsibility and led to her becoming a partner with the accounting firm.

“Coming back was great for me because I was familiar with the organization and people knew me and trusted me. It helped me get back into the swing of things quickly,” Ms. Comin-Sartor says. Her advice to others moving to another organization is “it’s important to keep the doors open when you leave an employer, because you never know.”

A war for talent is making experiences like this increasingly common, career experts say.

Until the past few years, companies would refuse to consider hiring former employees who had gone to the competition because they judged them to be damaged goods or employees with questionable loyalty, says career coach Colleen Clarke, president of Colleen Clarke and Associates in Toronto.

But as competition for skills increases in a growing economy, so-called boomerang employees are increasingly being valued. They know the industry, the company and its culture and they’ve gained experience in their time away, Ms. Clarke explains.

And some companies have even developed strategies to lure their prodigals back home.

“In accounting, there is a desperate talent war,” says Karen Wensley, Ernst & Young’s manager of human resources in Toronto.

The firm encourages experienced former employees to return because it has found they can “hit the ground running” and become fully productive in half the time it takes to acclimatize new hires, Ms. Wensley says.

The company has formalized an alumni association that keeps former employees in the loop with newsletters, notices of job postings and regular invitations by partners to lunch or social activities at which former employees are told the welcome mat is always out.

“We have a strong alumni group and we keep a connection with our alumni with the hope they will come back with even more talent,” Ms. Wensley says.

Their alumni recruiting has been so successful that between 15 and 20 per cent of the approximately 75 experienced accountants the firm hires each year have been with Ernst & Young previously in their career, she says.

The move is invariably a career booster, she adds. Those who leave tend to be employees in junior roles early in their career who get offered a promotion to move to a corporate job or who aspire to start their own businesses, she says. When they come back, the experience can allow them to take senior management roles that often lead to partnerships.

That’s what happened to Ms. Comin-Sartor, who joined Ernst & Young (at the time called Clarkson Gordon) in 1987 but moved to Nortel Networks Corp. in 1991 when a recruiter made her an offer she decided she couldn’t refuse.

“I got a better job offer from a company that at that time was on the rise and could work in a broader area of global finance and get an opportunity to learn computer systems,” she says. “It was a golden opportunity.”

But eventually the job became too demanding, her husband went back to university to get an executive MBA and she had two small children to care for.

“My workload became unmanageable. I was going home at night exhausted and I wanted more flexibility and to work fewer hours,” Ms. Comin-Sartor says.

That’s when a call from an Ernst & Young partner she used to work with became her escape route.

“I said, ‘I know it’s been a long time but I’ve done a lot and learned a lot while I was away. Do you guys have something for someone with my experience?’ ”

“He said, ‘We’d love to have people come back. I’ll set you up with the right people.’ ” she says.

Within two weeks she had a job offer — and a choice of flexible work assignments. And even more encouraging: “I got an unbelievable welcome. Partners I hadn’t met before were just so happy to meet me.”

However, not all companies are that attuned to the value of seasoned former employees and a return to a former employer can be fraught with tripwires, career coach Ms. Clarke cautions.

“What happens when you leave is that companies find out that you are not indispensable,” she says.

So when you leave a job you enjoyed, it’s important to have a strategy to leave the door ajar in case you might want to return if your move doesn’t work out, she says.

Make sure to leave on an upbeat and friendly note, she advises.

“Make it clear and put it in writing how much you appreciated the support and help you received from management to get to the current place in your career.”

Explain that your reasons for leaving had nothing to do with the experience you had as an employee. Be positive and upbeat about the situation and tell them you are grateful for the opportunity to have worked with them.

And if you had some differences with management or co-workers, it’s wise not to air them when you cut ties.

“People are going to speculate and gossip after you have gone and anything that you have said that is negative about the company is going to come up in conversation.” That can taint the waters and make people suspicious that you weren’t really a team player, Ms. Clarke says.

After you leave, try to keep up with former colleagues and happenings in the office and the industry, she advises. Keep in the loop by maintaining your membership in business organizations even if you have switched to a different industry and invite former teammates to lunch from time to time, she suggests.

“You don’t want to burn any bridges. Even if you don’t come back as an employee, it’s incredibly common for people to come back to do projects for a former employer as a consultant.”

And when you ask to return, you have to make the case your defection was to the former employer’s long-term advantage.

“They are under no obligation to take you back, so the selling feature always has to be the value you add to them today,” Ms. Clarke says. Describe what you learned after leaving the organization and make it clear that the experience has given you new insights into how to be even more valuable than before.

If you are hired back, keep in mind that there is always a culture shock when you return to former turf, Ms. Clarke warns.

For one thing, don’t expect to slide back into your former role.

“Even if you have a long relationship with the company, coming back after even a short gap makes you the new kid on the block trying to get back into the game. You’re not part of the team any more because there is a new team.”

In the time that you are gone, things will have changed in your company, as well. There may be added expectations, new processes and new managers who do not know you. So it is important to reintroduce yourself and what you’ve been doing upon your return.

Also, you may feel some hostility from others. Leaving can be like a divorce, in which former managers or colleagues can feel abandoned or suspicious that they might be jilted again, she says.

“It takes a long time to rebuild that trust. People will always be looking over their shoulders and thinking, are you going to burn me again?” So it helps to get involved in group projects and regularly express your support and enthusiasm when you return.

As well, you are likely to face extra scrutiny of your job performance. “Especially if you were a star performer when you left to do something else, it is almost like they will be asking you to make up for your time off.”

However, in Ernst & Young’s experience, when boomerang employees come back, they invariably pass the test with flying colours, Ms. Wensley says. Those who return tend to become incredibly committed and are among the most likely to stay with the firm for the rest of their careers.

“They’ve tested the grass out there and decided it’s not greener anywhere else.”

Coming back

That dream opportunity may turn into a nightmare or maybe you’ll just become homesick. Some day you may need to return to your former employer, so here’s advice from the pros for making a graceful exit and return.

Conduct an upbeat exit interview and express sadness about leaving the organization and the hope that you might return in the future.

Keep in regular touch with the former employer by staying on mailing lists for press releases, job offers and annual reports.

Stay in touch with former co-workers socially. A way to stay visible is to stop by the office as a guest on occasion to have lunch or a drink after work with former colleagues.

Maintain contact with the professional organization or alumni association and attend events to stay current with trends at your former employer.

When you approach your former employer about returning, stress what you have learned from your experience away and how it can be of advantage to the company.

Point out that you are valuable because you already know the industry and the marketplace.

Remember, the organization has moved on since you left. People may not know you or what you have done in the past, so make sure you reintroduce yourself to everyone when you return.

Get involved in projects that demonstrate your renewed loyalty to your employer and co-workers.

Remember, your return can raise jealousy and the resentment of those who picked up after you when you left.

If you’ve returned at a higher salary or with a more powerful title, do not dwell on that in conversations with colleagues.