Welcome back? PSU research shows “boomerang” employees may not be worth rehiring

Talya Bauer

Typically, when an organization is looking to fill a position, they either look for an external hire or promote from within. However, tight labor markets and skill shortages have made it increasingly likely that organizations may also consider a third option: rehiring an employee who has already left the organization.

These “boomerang” employees — workers who have left an organization and are later rehired by that same organization — may present an enticing opportunity. They are already familiar with the workplace culture and have training and institutional knowledge of the organization under their belts, for example. However, new research published in the Journal of Management calls into question some of the assumed benefits of rehiring and suggests organizations may want to think twice before welcoming boomerang employees back.

In “Welcome Back? Job Performance and Turnover of Boomerang Employees Compared to Internal and External Hires,” John D. Arnold (University of Missouri), Chad H. Van Iddekinge (University of Iowa), Michael C. Campion (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley), Talya N. Bauer (Portland State University), and Michael A. Campion (Purdue University) analyzed data on 30,714 employees at a large retail organization with locations throughout the United States who initially were hired/rehired into the management trainee position.

Evaluations of job performance before and after being rehired revealed that boomerang managers’ performance tended to remain the same—rather than increase or decrease—after being rehired. Furthermore, boomerang managers performed similarly to internally and externally hired managers in the first year on the job, but both internal and external hires improved more than rehires over time. Internal and external hires were also less likely to turn over from the organization than rehires. Finally, supplemental analyses indicated that boomerang managers who turned over a second time tended to do so for reasons similar to their initial turnover reasons.

“Interestingly, despite demonstrating less performance improvement and a higher propensity to turn over, boomerangs are more likely to be promoted than internal hires, and they are as likely to be promoted as external hires,” the researchers explained. “This suggests that organizations may use promotions to try to retain boomerangs, even though such employees may not be as effective as other employees over the long term. Taken as a whole, these findings call into question some of the proposed benefits of rehiring former employees."

This research provides some of the first comparisons between boomerang employees and the two traditional sources of employees. According to the researchers, factors organizations may want to consider before hiring a boomerang employee include: 

  • Reason for initial departure
  • Time horizon of performance
  • Availability of other types of hires 

“These findings highlight the importance of detailed record-keeping concerning reasons for initial departure,” the researchers noted. “Additionally, rehiring high performers may be especially beneficial for situations that require fast onboarding to the job or for which the average tenure is relatively short. As an example, hiring former employees may be a good approach for staffing short-term projects or for temporary work.”

This article was authored by the Southern Management Association, a domestic affiliate of the Academy of Management