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How to Win Back Employees Who Quit During the Pandemic

Scores of people who quit their jobs during the pandemic are open to giving their former employers a second chance. But winning these workers back requires a bit of extra effort.
Rehiring a former employee can save a company thousands of dollars compared with hiring a new job candidate.
Rehiring a former employee can save a company thousands of dollars compared with hiring a new job candidate. (Shutterstock)

Key insights

  • Nearly 1 in 5 people who quit their jobs during the pandemic have already “boomeranged” back to the company they left, a new study found.
  • Rehiring former employees can be cost-effective and good for morale.
  • Strategically communicating with ex-employees, and keeping meticulous data on who should and shouldn’t be rehired, is key to luring back workers who left.

Fashion firms struggling to fill roles amid the ongoing labour shortage are turning to a new pool of applicants: scores of pandemic-era job quitters who want their old gigs back.

Whether they miss their former colleagues and customers, are facing financial hardships or now realise the grass really wasn’t greener, some of the millions of workers who left their jobs starting in 2020 as part of the so-called Great Resignation are knocking on their former employers’ doors.

Nearly 1 in 5 people who quit their jobs during the pandemic have already “boomeranged” back to the job they left and, of those who have not yet gone back to their old jobs, 41 percent would consider it if it were an option, an April 2022 survey by HR provider UKG found.

It’s always been common practice for executives and designers to leave their positions only to return after a few years, typically with new skills, a higher salary and a better title. Luxury fashion veteran Jacopo Venturini came back to Valentino for the third time in June 2020, this time as the brand’s chief executive. He fortified his resumé with roles at Prada and Gucci in between stints at the Italian luxury brand.

“When I left Valentino for the second time, I thought it was the right moment for me to extend and hone my skills and competencies, acquired over the years, in different contexts and environments,” Venturini told BoF in an email. “I was willing to grow and there was not space to do it internally.”

But the latest influx of repeat hires span every rung of the career ladder, and is being driven as much by retailers desperate to fill open roles as individual employees’ career plans.

Boomerang employees also come with some unique benefits.

Rehiring a former employee can save a company thousands of dollars — they typically don’t need as much training as a new hire, and are already familiar with the company’s way of working and its goals, experts say. The return of an old colleague can serve as a powerful signal to an existing workforce that a company is a desirable place to work.

Former employees won’t automatically come back. Labour has the upper hand in many fields of work right now: US employers posted a record 11.5 million job openings in March, according of the US Bureau of Labour Statistics. Companies must keep up with former employees and actively lure them back. Not to mention they need a corporate culture that rewards loyalty and doesn’t punish those who seek work elsewhere.

“This boomerang thing is a really good example of where we are… companies are being progressive in their thinking about hiring right now because they really don’t have a choice,” said Chris Mullen, executive director at UKG’s The Workforce Institute. “They have to act fast.”

Building an “Alumni Network”

Companies that keep meticulous records on workers who leave, including contact details, performance reviews and feedback gathered during exit interviews, have a head start on attracting boomerang employees.

At Workjam, a software application for retail workers, chief executive Stephen Kramer said the company has been working with its clients — which include retailers Ulta and TJMaxx — to help them build up “alumni networks” so that former employees feel more like proud graduates of their prior workplaces rather than disgruntled exes who never want to come back.

“The reality is that it’s very difficult, in the short-term, if you haven’t had that relationship with former employees to try to to reach out now,” he said.

Most employees who return to their old jobs had a “strong and supportive manager,” the UKG study found. Rokt, an e-commerce tech firm that helps companies like Wayfair and Lands’ End personalize e-commerce checkout, rehired six former employees in the past year and a half — including a senior software engineer and senior vice president of product. Chief people officer Sarah Wilson said she relied mostly on the employee relationships built and maintained by managers to stack the company’s roster.

“Forget the HR and the recruiting function, the people manager or senior leader staying in touch with [their] people after they leave, and actually genuinely taking interest in them as humans is, I think, the easiest strategy to employ to get people to boomerang back,” she said.

When Venturini returned to Valentino in June 2020, for example, the company said the move was spurred by “a strong passion for the brand and a longstanding relationship” with creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli.

“Knowing the roots of the place where you worked and returning after years means that the connection originally created is a strong, special bond that allows you to give the very best of yourself with a wider view and reviewed perspectives,” Venturini said.

Who to Bring Back

Companies should employ HR management software that allows managers to flag “regrettable and non-regrettable” employee exits, said Wilson. Employees who were terminated for infractions or poor performance are obvious red flags for rehiring but not every top-performing employee should be brought back, experts say.

Exit interviews should not be treated as a run-of-the-mill formality. Instead, employers should pay close attention to feedback from employees — at all levels — to glean whether there’s an opportunity to re-engage in the future. For instance, if a good employee left due to scheduling issues or insufficient pay, companies should only reach out if they have addressed those challenges, said Mullen.

For retailers, many of the factors that drove store workers and some corporate employees to resign over the past two years — such as Covid safety concerns, low pay and lack of job flexibility — have in some cases been resolved, said said Rob Klitsch, director of UKG’s retail, hospitality and food service practice group.

Before rehiring an alum, Kramer said Workjam takes into consideration factors such as how long an employee worked at the company — even if they left in good standing.

“I’ve heard… we should only target people that have worked with us longer than six months, he said. “Anything less than that, they probably aren’t interested or they may not know enough about our organisation.”

Wilson said reaching out to former employees is worth the extra effort, however.

“I would welcome the boomerang employee with open arms — the idea that somebody goes gains perspective outside and then decides to come back is very powerful,” she said. “They know the good and the bad and the ugly, and then make the choice to come back — that’s a very powerful story and a very strong reinforcement of your culture for your existing employees.”

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