Sky Erickson, 29, couldn't have asked for a better job out of college: as junior designer at a Boston-based travel education company. In 6 years, her employer promoted her to senior designer and sent her to 14 countries.
Still, Erickson was curious about outside opportunities, especially an art director role at a music documentary and concert streaming service. "I'm a music geek, so I had to apply," she says. The salary was $6,000 lower with worse benefits, but it was fully remote, so she took the job.
"I had heard that I should be going to different companies, trying new things," she says. But Erickson ended up missing in-office life. When she learned about a role at her former company in a different department, she jumped at the chance to return, even though she felt "foolish" coming back after only 9 months. Perhaps she shouldn't: It resulted in a $12,000 raise.
Ultimately, she has no regrets. "I don't think I would have gotten that raise if I had stayed." She wasn't the only one with the idea: There were 2 other former employees returning at the same time.
The boomerang employee boom
Like the Australian aboriginal tool, which leaves and returns to a thrower's hand, boomerang employees leave a company and come back later. About 28% of external hires made between January 2019 and April 2022 were boomerang workers, according to data on more than 100 global companies from Visier, a people analytics and workforce planning software company.1
Boomeranging might be hot because of the pandemic-induced Great Resignation, when many people left their jobs for roles they thought matched their recalibrated priorities. "Young people gain perspective when they are away from a job for a while," says Meredith Stoddard, life events experience lead at Fidelity.
Almost half of workers who quit during the pandemic realized their previous employers were actually better, according to UKG, an HR and payroll services provider.2 New employers didn't live up to the promises they made and expectations that were set when the workers were hired, researchers wrote in Harvard Business Review. It didn't take boomerang employees long to get back: The average one returns only 13 months after leaving, according to the Visier report.
Sure, there's comfort in returning to what and who you know, but is going back to a former employer usually a good money move?
Re-turning a profit as a boomerang employee
James Fox, 31, of Columbus, Ohio, joined a bank's IT department in 2020, earning $65,000. In 2021, he started searching for a better-paying job and accepted a similar position at a consulting firm for $100,000.
Within 6 months, he realized it wasn't a good fit. "My schedule was completely reliant on clients, which didn't work because I'd just welcomed a baby," Fox explains. Fox was glad when his previous manager reached out about an open developer position at his old company. They agreed on a salary of $105,000. "By boomeranging, I was able to get a $40,000 raise," he says.
Fox's 38% bump is bigger than most boomerang employees'. The average one scores a 25% raise above what they earned when they last worked at that company, according to Visier data.3 A typical job-changer's increase? Just 10%, adjusted for real wages, according to Pew Research Center data.4 Even that is more than the average 4% raise that those who stay with one employer get in the time boomerang workers tend to return.5
Why are boomerang employees so valuable? Because they could offer the best of both worlds: new skills from outside roles combined with institutional knowledge. Familiarity with internal policies and culture and established relationships with colleagues could make onboarding faster and smoother. And because boomerang workers know what they're getting into, they could be more likely to stick around.
They also may be effective employees. A study in the Academy of Management Journal comparing the post-hire performance of 2,053 boomerangs and 10,858 completely new hires in a large healthcare organization found that boomerang workers outperformed the others.6
Of course, not every boomerang journey goes as planned, as Jenna Carson learned the hard way. "I was excited to land a customer service and administrative support job for a car company in the Detroit, Michigan, area within 6 months of graduating from college," says Carson, now 37. "The pay was respectable, covering my bills with a little left for discretionary spending."
She eventually decided to move to Portland, Oregon, so she resigned. A few months later, "I was struggling to find a full-time position with a livable wage in my new home," she recalls. "As much as it hurt my pride, I reached out to my former direct supervisor to see if they'd take me back if I moved back." She got her old job with a $2,000 increase, on par with the across-the-board raise most employees there had recently received.
"It barely covered my moving expenses and didn't cover the deposit on my new apartment," she recalls. Plus, the things that bothered her about the company before hadn't changed much. She left again 18 months later.
Even if you don't relocate to return to an employer, there may be financial downsides to boomeranging, such as with 401(k) matches. Vesting schedules, or when you can keep the full amount that your company matches, tend to last 5 years, says Stoddard. If you leave your company and return, you may have to start back at day 1 of the vesting schedule. That means, instead of being closer to fully vested if you had stayed, you'd lose out on the matching dollars you could've kept—and be treated like any brand-new employee. Other benefits that get better with time at the company, such as paid-time-off amounts, could similarly restart.
Also, you may not realize which key benefits you've lost until you're in the thick of the new job. Perks such as backup daycare and disability and life insurance options can vary from company to company, and you tend to only get to know the intricacies after you've made the switch, Stoddard adds.
Should you go back to your old job?
If you're thinking about boomeranging, revisit your reasons for leaving in the first place. Are those problems no longer problems for you? Be clear about whether you actually want to go back or if you're just trying to get away from your current employer. "Frame the decision as something you're going toward, instead of what you're avoiding," suggests Stoddard. "And make sure you're not being overly nostalgic."
As for boomeranging for a pay boost, "if you're fighting against inflation, and you've tried within your current company to get that raise and it's not happening, there's no harm in seeing what the outside options are," says Stoddard. You might find happiness at another company or the move "can set you up to come back to your old company at a higher level," she adds.
While you're likely to get a raise if you return to an employer, don't neglect the total compensation package. Boomerang employees are in a prime position to negotiate perks. Since they're familiar with the work and environment, they may be better able to broker deals around things that are important to them, such as more vacation days or flexibility.
How to become a boomerang employee
First, "no matter how frustrated or burned out you feel, always exit a company with grace," Stoddard cautions. Then, stay in touch with former colleagues, even if it's just through professional networking sites, she says.
That was key for John Frigo, a search engine optimization lead for a vitamin and supplement retailer. He started in early 2020 as a marketing analyst, but a year later he wanted to travel and freelance. "I left on good terms and had the impression the door was always open," says Frigo, 27, of Bolingbrook, Illinois.
"I was happy and doing well, but a lot of things that come with freelancing are a headache," he says. "It was also isolating working by myself—I enjoyed being part of a team."
Over the next year, Frigo kept in contact with his former colleagues, so he was one of the first to learn when another employee left. "I dropped an email to my former manager and said I'd be interested in coming back if he was interested in having me," he says.
He returned to the same position—but with a $10,000 bump in pay. "I still have freelance clients on the side, but it's nice having a consistent paycheck and benefits." The raise probably helps too.