Recruiting past employees provides crunch relief

The dot-com revolution may have lost a little steam, but a lot of businesses are still struggling with the digital economy's shortage of skilled labor. So more and more employers are welcoming back what are known as "boomerang" hires -- former employees who have left for other jobs (seeking dot-com fortunes, perhaps), only to return.

In 1999, $2.6-billion computer-publishing giant IDG hired 904 employees in the United States, 122 of whom were rehires. Among those returnees was Jeff Julian, senior vice-president of Internet development and publisher of Following the lure of the Internet, he had left his job in business development at IDG to join RemarQ Communities Inc., a San Jose, Calif., company that provides Web sites with discussion-group capabilities. "I must admit, I felt like I wanted to get in on some of that growth," Julian says. But after eight months with RemarQ, he returned to IDG to take over for his former boss, who was leaving the company. "I feel like has as much potential as any start-up, but at the same time you get the value of a strong brand," he says.

Philip A. Nardone, president and founder of $5-million PAN Communications, in Andover, Mass., not only courts departed employees but also lays out specific guidelines for their return. "In public relations, attrition tends to be high," Nardone says. So he keeps in touch with former employees by E-mail. If an appropriate job opens up, he lets them know. Some of his rehires, like Mary-Beth Sorgi, must go through the interview process all over again.

Sorgi left her job as an account manager at PAN four years ago to work in the marketing department of a bank. Nardone lured her back by offering her a position at a more senior level. "Some of our employees come back at a higher level if they've accrued some expertise that I feel is a value-add for our clients," Nardone says.

If returnees haven't gained any significant business experience during their absence, they usually return to the same position with the same salary that they had before, assuming that position is available. PAN's boomerang employees restart their 401(k) plans at the company's next enrollment period, just like other new hires. "In many ways they're treated like new employees," Nardone says, "except they already know the ropes and can hit the ground running, as opposed to new employees who have to get oriented."

One possible problem: alienating loyal employees who resent the promotions and raises conferred on boomerangs. "There might be a little trepidation in the minds of the other employees when someone comes back at another level," Nardone says. He adds that it's up to the boomerang hire to "quickly prove to the team that he or she deserves that title."

Wayne Luke, an area managing partner at recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles, in Atlanta, says that welcoming back former staffers sends a positive signal to employees that the grass isn't always greener at other companies.

As for avoiding any jealousy among the remaining staff, he says, the best method is to evaluate all employees on their own merits. But, of course, you were already doing that.

Welcome Back the Prodigal Worker

Kaye Morgan is vice-president of company office operations for Management Recruiters International, a search firm that placed 35,000 people in jobs last year. These are her tips for recruiting boomerangs:

Get a thorough update. Before you launch into any interview with former staffers, make a list of any qualifications they may have earned since working for you, Morgan says. Some may have gotten a master's degree. Others could have taken a course in Java. "Also, find out what they missed about your culture," Morgan adds.

Find out why they left. "Ask yourself, 'Do those reasons still exist within the company?" Morgan says. "If they do, you're going to lose that individual again sooner or later."

Stay in touch. One MRI client used its E-mail system to alert former employees about innovations within the company. That prompted several departed staffers to throw their hats back into the ring. Don't hesitate to approach former workers directly. Tell them that you were sorry to see them go and that there may be an opening in a similar position but at a higher level. However, Morgan warns, "by making the first move, you could lose a little of your bargaining power." --A.M.B.