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Returning to your old job: Yes, it’s possible, and maybe even a good idea

Oct 01, 2015

Dear Annie: Does it make sense to apply for a job at the company where I used to work? I spent about 10 years there, and then accepted my current job elsewhere because it came with more responsibility, a bigger challenge, and more money. However, after three years here, I’ve realized that there were a lot of great things I took for granted at my old company — especially the culture, which was less bureaucratic and much more willing to take risks and embrace (or at least consider) new ideas. I left on good terms, and I’m still in touch with some of my former colleagues. One of them just told me about an opening there, a couple of steps above my old job, that he says I’d be “ideal” for. I’m tempted to pursue it. What do you think? — Homesick in Hatboro

Dear H.H.: I think you should go for it. Especially since you didn’t burn any bridges on your way out, odds are that your old employer will be glad to see you. That wasn’t always true. “There has been a big shift in just the past five years or so,” observes Dave Almeda, whose title is chief people officer at cloud-based workforce-management firm Kronos.

According to a new study by Kronos and WorkplaceTrends.com, 76% of 1,800 U.S. human resources executives and hiring managers say they are open to hiring “boomerangs”—even though, until recently, almost 50% of the companies surveyed had a formal policy against it. More than half say they now give “high” or “very high” priority to job applicants who have worked at the company before.

Talent shortages partly explain the shift, but familiarity with the company and its culture is often “the biggest benefit” to rehiring alumni, the study says. “The risk of hiring someone who won’t work out is much less with a former employee than with an ‘outsider,'” notes Almeda. “There’s also a positive influence on other employees” when someone goes off in search of greener pastures and then decides to come back, he adds. “It makes other people think twice about leaving.”

The survey points out a few potential pitfalls, though. The first has to do with your intention to stay put this time. Almost one in three HR pros and hiring managers say they’re concerned that someone who was wooed away once will leave again if a better offer comes along. And second, about one in four worry that a returning employee will still carry the same “baggage” he or she left with.

So, in job interviews, it’s important to spell out exactly why you miss your old company (for instance, its willingness to innovate), and how you plan to use what you’ve learned from your current job in the future—preferably the long-term future.

As for the “baggage,” Almeda says, “A lot depends on why you quit in the first place. If someone left because of a bad fit with the culture, or they didn’t see eye-to-eye with senior management, or some other reason that’s not likely to have changed, a hiring manager might think he or she should move on, instead of coming back to the same old problems.” It sounds as if your departure was baggage-free, so emphasizing that in job interviews—maybe talking about some of the things you now miss about the company—certainly couldn’t hurt.

Almeda, who is a boomerang himself (he returned to Kronos about a year ago, after just one month at a different company), has a few more tips for anyone who wants to go “home” again:

Talk with former colleagues. Since you’ve kept in touch, this should be easy. “You need to sit down with people who are still working there to get their impressions of what might have changed since you’ve been gone,” says Almeda. “Someone who’d been away from Kronos for three years, for example, would find a different company now—new technology, different processes, and so on. It’s smart to get up to date on all that before you go in for interviews.”

Focus on the future. This is always a good idea in job interviews, but particularly for boomerangs. “Don’t refer too often to the ‘old days,’ because it will sound as if you miss them, even if you don’t,” says Almeda. If you have specific questions about things you liked, or didn’t, when you worked there before, “by all means ask, but be careful not to suggest that you’re stuck in the past. If you say, for instance, ‘Do we still do this? Because I loved it,' and the answer is ‘No, we don’t,’ the conversation could get awkward.”

Skip the HR department. Instead, ask a former boss, or the person who thinks you’d be “ideal” for the job, or both, to recommend you. Then “go straight to the hiring manager for that position,” Almeda says. “You shouldn’t have to go through the ‘normal’ channels.” He adds that Kronos has 180 boomerangs (out of a worldwide workforce of 4,500), and that “90% weren’t hired by HR.”

Good luck!

Talkback: Have you ever returned to a former employer, or tried to? How did it work out? Leave a comment below.

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