Welcome Boomerang Employees Back — Effectively

Photo of pedestrians walking in a crowd.
(Photo: Brian Merrill/Pixabay)

By now, everyone has heard of the “great resignation”—the mass exodus of employees from their companies during the latter part of the COVID-19 pandemic. Around 47 million U.S. workers quit their jobs in 2021—a massive rate of nearly four million per month. To put that in perspective, there were about 163 million workers at the end of that year, so approximately 29 percent of the workforce resigned. As of the end of 2022, those numbers went to more than 50 million employee quits in a labor force of around 165 million—about 30 percent of the entire U.S. workforce quit in one year.

However, a recent Paychex survey asked individuals who quit their jobs if they were satisfied with their original decision and whether they had any regrets. About 80 percent of the more than 800 employees surveyed said that they did have regrets about quitting. In addition, 78 percent of individuals who left their jobs said that they would like to have their old job back, and 68 percent had tried to do so. Paychex dubbed this the “great regret.” However, these results give employers valuable information about the potential to work with those who have been called “boomerang employees” in previous generations.

Recruitment costs are underestimated

There is significant value in hiring trained individuals who are interested in working for your specific organization, and boomerang employees are, by definition, “trained.” Recruitment and selection costs for new employees are routinely underestimated. This is mainly because the direct costs of recruiting can be easily calculated, but indirect costs cannot. Direct costs include recruiting staff salaries, advertising costs, agency fees, background checks, travel costs, etc. Many human resources groups estimate these direct costs as between 20 percent and 40 percent of an employee’s annual compensation.

However, if we add in indirect costs, such as onboarding, initial and ongoing training, uncompleted work due to holes in the organization (that then cause other employees to become disengaged because they have to take up the slack), relationships and synergies, learning curves and restarting the search after bad hires, the costs can easily go to between 100 percent and 500 percent of the annual salary of the individual. If we are honest and do the best we can in estimating these indirect costs, it simply makes sense to not lose employees unnecessarily, and if we do lose them, to welcome them and their associated skill sets back, if possible.

However, if we don’t make some adjustments, it is likely that we will lose the boomerang employee again. So, what do we need to watch for? What happened to create this storm of resignations over the past two years? While no doubt there are many different reasons for people quitting their work, a few stand out.

The janitor who helped put a man on the moon

Business Management INK and LSE Business Review: Business Research into Practice.

First, employee engagement and satisfaction are down notably in the past two years. Gallup reported in a recent survey that employee engagement dropped from 2020 to 2022. In 2020, 36 percent of employees reported being fully engaged with their work. By 2022, that rate was 32 percent, with 18 percent of employees “actively disengaged.” Disengaged workers are far more likely to quit, and one key to engagement in many organizations is the valuable relationships that are formed between coworkers. Boomerang employees most likely created and maintained these relationships in the past.

Finding meaningfulness in work is also a critical part of employee engagement. Thus, if employees rejoin the organization, an important issue to address is making sure the work is meaningful to the employee. Never take the attitude that this is a boring or lousy job that someone must do. There are people who enjoy jobs that you would not take, so you must stress the meaningfulness of the job. When President John F. Kennedy visited NASA, he met a janitor who was carrying a broom down the hallway. The president casually asked the janitor what he did for NASA, and the janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” The janitor knew something that most of us struggle with: the purpose of our work. We need to believe that our contribution matters and understand how we contribute to the team and organizational mission.

Another issue that frequently leads to disengagement and resignations is the perception of unfair compensation. Recent high levels of inflation have hurt every employee in every organization. It is likely fair to say that not many people feel that their compensation has kept pace with the inflation rate. Factual salary survey information can help here, but probably the most valuable tool is conversations with both candidates and existing employees about their pay rates and how those rates are set. (Ask us about pay transparency versus pay secrecy. Go ahead, I dare you!) In addition, if we choose to offer a boomerang employee a higher pay rate, we need to be prepared to review the rates of everyone in similar work roles to avoid other voluntary quits due to perceived (or real) lack of fairness.

Addressing burnout

Employee stress, mental health, and the prevalence of burnout are increasing. If any honest person looks at the past three years, it quickly becomes obvious that mental health and burnout are major issues. At the extreme, many families suffered multiple deaths within their ranks, but even the loss of intimate friendships or routine relationships through the process of isolation can affect mental health. Large numbers of organizations have refocused their energies on mental health and burnout, but many have not. Work-life balance must be reassessed, and the potential for flexible or remote work will need to be evaluated in every position at every organization. Physical safety in the workplace must be a priority. These needs will have to be addressed by successful organizations going forward.

Certainly, there are other factors that have contributed to the loss of large numbers of workers, but there is fairly strong evidence from multiple sources for the above factors. If employers don’t address these issues—at least in some meaningful ways—the likelihood of losing boomerang employees a second time is increased significantly.

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Robert N. Lussier and John R. Hendon

Robert N. Lussier (pictured) is a professor of management at Springfield College. John R. Hendon is a senior instructor of management at the University of Arkansas at the Little Rock School of Business.

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