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Leader's Edge Homeward Bound

In business, you can go home again, but keep the door wide open.

By  Julia Kramer

There are no statistics that track the success rate of high school sweethearts separated for 30, 40 or even 50 years who reunite in adulthood. But we know this happens time and again. Take the real-life case of Diane and Rodney. High school sweethearts in 1959, they were separated by disapproving parents. But in 2007 they reunited, rekindled the romance and ultimately married. When you think about it, this phenomenon is not exactly surprising. Common backgrounds and values, knowing each other’s history, shared friends and experiences, combined with subsequent maturity and a more learned appreciation of relationships, keep the door open and make for a powerful reconnection.

Reuniting also happens in the workplace, many times with terrific results. We know that good employees, for a variety of reasons, leave their jobs, not necessarily because they are unhappy but for reasons ranging from an impossible commute to lack of promotional opportunities. Good employees that leave without slamming the door behind them, i.e. they give appropriate notice, help with transition and don’t badmouth the firm, stand the best chance of being welcomed back—even if returning is not on their radar when they leave.

They move on and find new jobs, gain new experiences, develop a broader perspective and mature both interpersonally and emotionally. At some point, especially if they’ve kept in touch, they may aspire to return.

This situation can result in a monumental win-win. The firm gets back a proven strong contributor, one who knows the landscape, likes the landscape and is motivated to return. The employee is in the enviable position of knowing most of the positives and negatives about the firm and is able to make a very well informed decision.

Given the potential upside, it’s discouraging to see some firms treat departing employees like a cheating partner and ending the employment relationship in a nasty breakup. Take a lesson from Diane and Rodney. Keep the door open for returning employees, particularly those who have the potential to be your next stars. Your chances increase that you’ll reap the many benefits of a happy reunion.

Set the stage. Just as no one wants to return to a relationship marked by long-term dissatisfaction and dysfunction even if some chemistry remains, no employee wants to return to a job where they felt unimportant or unappreciated, even if the company is successful and “sexy.” Set the stage for returning employees at the individual level. Ensure that valued employees know they are valued. Treat them with respect, throughout their tenure and particularly once they resign, and make sure they understand the importance of their role and contribution.

Ask them to stay. Years ago I resigned from a job and, after an uncomfortable resignation speech, my boss said, “No. I don’t want you to resign. Tell me what you need to stay.” With that one statement, I realized that resigning was not akin to breaking up, that there was room for discussion and flexibility. While many managers would have accepted my resignation and fast-tracked me out of there, this executive looked beyond the immediate situation. Before my words were out, he had evaluated my contribution, engaged me in discussion, and moved toward future possibilities. I didn’t resign that day after all, but a year later, due to pressing personal reasons, I stepped down from my position with support from the organization. When years later I was again ready for a full-time job, there was no doubt where I wanted to work. And for whom. Because the door was left open, I stepped back through it, and I’m still there (here) today. Simply put, if you’d like an employee to stay and/or return, make it very clear.

Stay in touch. Short of creating an alumni association, which is not a bad idea, there are many ways to stay in touch with valued ex-employees. Facebook, LinkedIn and even old-fashioned email are easy ways to send messages. It doesn’t really matter what words you use. The simple act of consistently reaching out says “thinking of you,” “want to stay in touch,” and, subtly (or not), “let me know if things don’t work out and you’d like to come back.”

Alternatively, many firms stay in touch by hiring the ex-employee as a part-time consultant, calling them with business questions and inviting them to social and professional events. Staying in touch is a key component to eventually getting back together.

Re-recruit. Bringing back star performers, especially when a position opens up at your firm that you think they’d be perfect for, may require some wooing. Stay on equal footing with the person you’re looking to entice and don’t be shy. Make a date, for example. Invite the person to lunch, a logical step since you’ve stayed in touch. Tell them about the opening in a conversational, “let’s see what we can come up with” kind of way. Ask about and then carefully listen to their personal goals and professional interests. Match them to the job you have in mind. Ask about new skill sets and experiences. Integrate these into a discussion of the new position. Success is not guaranteed, but you’ll greatly increase your odds of creating a spark of interest.

The value of a positive relationship should be respected and preserved, even when the existing affiliation ends. Make sure it’s a happy ending and then stay in touch so that, when the time is right, you’ve kept both the door and the possibility open for a mutually beneficial reunion.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President.


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