Boomerang employees

InFocus Systems hasn't become one of the best-regarded employers in Oregon by showing departing employees the door upon their decisions to leave. If anything, the Portland manufacturer of LCD computer projectors coddles such employees.

So when a valued IT staffer seemed bittersweet about his departure during a recent exit interview, Rebecca Lynch-Wilmot, InFocus' director of employee learning and development, didn't let the opportunity to plant a warm and fuzzy notion pass.

"I made it clear to him that if he got to his new employer and felt any misgivings, we would reinstate him and give him his seniority back," recalls Lynch-Wilmot.

Just two weeks later, the employee was back on the job at InFocus.

On the surface, the innocent suggestion that the person would be welcomed back ended up saving InFocus the cost of recruiting and training a replacement who might never match the departing employee's abilities.

But Lynch-Wilmot says the worker's decision to return was more significant in terms of its impact on the company culture. "It tells your employees that you really mean it when you say your employees are your greatest asset," she says.

It should come as no surprise that such a seemingly insignificant gesture as letting departing staffers know they're still wanted can have a powerful impact, says Jane Weizmann, a senior consultant for Watson Wyatt Worldwide, an human resources consulting firm in Bethesda, Md.

In many instances, employees are looking more for signs that they're considered important than for increased compensation. As such, Weizmann recommends that companies looking to lure highly regarded former employees back into the fold consider simple and persistent contact with those people. "What you don't want to create is a situation where people think, 'So if I leave and come back, I get more?'," she says.

Subtle acts, such as keeping in touch through e-mail, making phone contact after six months and conducting informal surveys, can mean the difference between a person who drifts away permanently and one who returns as a boomerang employee.

The fact that many employers today are making such efforts to remain in contact with former employees represents a fundamental shift.

"There used to be a management philosophy that said if you're not loyal, don't let the door hit you on the way out," Weizmann says. Now many of those same compannies see former employees as a great recruitment pool.

One company that is a haven for former staffers is Gensler, a global architecture firm in San Francisco. The company has enough boomerang employees -- in the neighborhood of 12% of its staff -- that HR can run reports that break down the percentage of boomerangers by department.

Considering the tight market for IT professionals, Gensler's management is particularly eager to bring back technically inclined former employees such as Vyc Carolino.

Carolino joined Gensler's Washington, D.C., office in 1995 as a project-based CAD coordinator. He left in February 1998 to work for another architecture firm in the area, but his former managers stayed in close contact with him.

When the opportunity to rehire Carolino arose last October, he was welcomed back with open arms. There was no big bonus or substantial pay raise, just a clear message that he was wanted and valued, and that he'd be encouraged to expand his skills.

"We wanted to see what things he had learned and give him a chance to move up," says Jeannette Merino, HR manager for Gensler's 200-employee Washington office.

Just six months later, a management position opened up and Carolino was chosen to fill it. He's now responsible for all things CAD, including network management.

Carolino suggests that anyone considering returning to a former employer shouldn't hesitate if the move feels right, which his did.

"If you realize that your previous employer was better than the one you're with now, for whatever reason, there is absolutely nothing wrong with going back," he says.

This story, "Boomerang employees" was originally published by Network World.

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