I probably don't need to tell you that in the last few weeks, the sports world was engulfed in speculation over one burning question: Where would basketball's best player, LeBron James, choose to play next season?

Nor do I probably need to tell you that the drama played out with James heading back to his roots in Cleveland with fans there seeming to instantly forget his earlier betrayal in moving to Miami. But the question remains, will James's triumphant return to the Cavaliers lead to title glory? The whole saga has been potent fuel for water-cooler chat for weeks, but does the LeBron story have anything else to offer business owners?

Employees on the Rebound

Perhaps a chance to reflect on the larger question of returning to your roots--can former team members come back to their previous place of employment and succeed, or is the baggage most of these so-called "boomerang employees" carry simply too heavy?

As fascinating a conversation starter as James is, you don't have to rely entirely on the career trajectory of superstar basketball players to answer this question. There's actual research that can guide you. In a series of studies published in Personnel Psychology, Brad Harris (University of Illinois), Stacie Furst-Holloway (University of Cincinnati), Benson Rosen (University of North Carolina), and Abbie J. Shipp (Texas Christian University), dug into the problem of if and when employers should welcome home previous employees.

The team found that there are some good reasons to allow boomerang employees back into the fold. They're generally familiar with your organizational culture and systems, and their time away has no doubt given them solid ground to compare working for you with working for someone else.

"In essence, they've learned firsthand that the grass isn't always greener on the other side," Harris explains.

The Conditions of a Successful Return

But not all boomerang employees are created equal. The research team also found that a few basic conditions need to be met for an employee's return to work out well. In order for returnees to be successful, they need to tick these boxes (beyond the obvious ones such as your liking them the first time around and still having the right skill set for your opening):

  • They left under good circumstances. Just like you're highly unlikely to get back together with an ex after an ugly split, rehiring previous employees only tends to work when they left without any bitterness, to relocate, say, or for a once-in-a-lifetime job offer. "Employees who originally left on good terms and of their own volition might be better suited for a return," says Harris.
  • They weren't gone for too long. If your prospective returnee has been away too long, he's probably lost the main advantage that would make you keen to rehire him--his up-to-date knowledge of exactly how your company works. This even applies to James, according to Harris: "Although many Heat fans probably wish LeBron's tenure in Miami was longer, the brevity of his stay on South Beach should have Cavalier fans smiling."
  • They did good work while they were away. OK, this one is no shock, but research backs up common sense on this point. "Organizations should first, and most obviously, consider their previous performance histories at…their most recent employer," recommends Harris.

What's been your experience of hiring back ex-employees?