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For ‘boomerang’ employees, breaking up is hard to do

Leaving a job can often feel like a breakup. Often, our instinct is to trade up and find a worthier partner or at least one that appreciates you more.

As an employer, seeing an employee leave also stings. While it's tempting to view companies as faceless enterprises that make unilateral decisions, they are actually composed of many individual human beings making many individual decisions. So when a trusted member decides to leave that tightly knit ecosystem, it hurts.

But what if that breakup is only a temporary?

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For many it is, and a study published this summer in Personnel Psychology, shows that "boomerang" employees, or workers who return to a company after leaving voluntarily, can comprise about 10 to 20 per cent of an organization's new hires. These comeback kids bring with them substantial advantages. For one, they are familiar with the corporate culture, policies, and practices, so they require less training and socialization. Some estimate that the average Fortune 500 company could save $12-million (U.S.) a year if former employees were actively recruited.

The research goes on to suggest that former employees who left for "greener pastures" may show a higher level of loyalty when they return after discovering that the grass really wasn't that much greener elsewhere. Also, the experience an employee gleaned working for someone else provides a fresh perspective and new insight for the firm.

So can you really go back? Carolyn Ray, managing director of Interbrand Canada returned to the Toronto-based office of the brand consultancy in May after a six-year absence and considers herself very lucky. While working at Interbrand Canada was her "dream job" then and now, Ms. Ray said her time away was critical to her success.

"More than anything, I am grateful for the objectivity and perspective that leaving provides. Creating separation gave me the ability to judge the substance of the experience and evaluate how it impacted my personal and professional growth," Ms. Ray said. The hiatus has also left her more engaged and committed.

Ms. Ray also credits her time away with strengthening her relationship with the colleagues she worked with the first time around.

"These people are a huge part of the reason I decided to return," she said, likening the process to "reverse interviewing." After several years away, Ms. Ray said she could observe her colleagues' successes and accomplishments more objectively.

While leaving a company should no longer be viewed as an inherent criticism of an employer, less than a generation ago it was considered a sign of disloyalty. To some, the transition back may still feel uncomfortable.

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Laurie Smith, senior director of strategic communications, media and audience relations at CNW Group , said she felt some slight trepidation when she returned to the corporate newswire company at the end of 2013 after almost a three-year absence.

"I was afraid my return would be beyond awkward, but it turns out my concerns were completely unfounded," said Ms. Smith, who said her colleagues, both old and new have been very welcoming.

When she left CNW after eight years, Ms. Smith said it felt like a good time to move on and try new things but was courted back by Nicole Guillot, CNW's president and CEO.

"As exciting as the opportunity sounded, I said no, more than once, so yes, I suppose there was initial [hestitation] in returning," Ms. Smith said.

She agreed to return on a contract basis to start, as she still suffered from "commitment issues," but after a few weeks agreed to join full-time. While her new role is not as senior as her former one, where she was vice-president of communication and strategy, she's stretching into areas that are new for her, including working for CNW's products team and managing their relationship with media outlets and associations. She calls it "an absolutely incredible job to have for a newshound like me."

"The strangest part about my return is that it's easy to forget I was gone for nearly three years," Ms. Smith said.

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So how should you handle your exit from a company with the knowledge that you may one day make a comeback? According to Ms. Smith, the key is to maintain your network.

Ms. Ray also advises that anyone leaving a role should be respectful of their colleagues and employer, saying how you handle your exit is as important as how you handle your entrance.

"The whole point of working is to find a place where you can be at your best and achieve a positive impact. That is really tough to find, so you have to treat every experience as a learning opportunity," Ms. Ray said.

"When you find that place that accepts you as you are and empowers you to make your ambitions a reality, it's pretty magical," she added.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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About the Author
Future of Work

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. More

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