A few months at the new company and you're suddenly wishing you'd never jumped ship? Here's how to return to your old job without losing face.
JOSH LEBARON IS living proof that the job you're eager to toss today could be your saving grace tomorrow. For 16 months LeBaron spent his days at the Denver office of Lipper's, editing mutual fund reports. He liked it well enough, but what he really dreamed of was being a magazine writer. So in early 2001, when Investment Advisor offered him a writing job outside New York, he jumped at the chance. The plan was for his girlfriend to join him there as soon as she found employment. But then came Sept. 11. "She laid down the law," says LeBaron, "and said, 'There's no way I'm moving.'"
So LeBaron began a fruitless search for a writing gig in Colorado. After a few weeks with no luck, he finally decided his best bet was to try to return to his old job. As it turned out, that was the easy part — his boss was happy to take him back. Much harder was working up the nerve to ask. "I was worried it would look like backtracking — maybe they'd think I failed at the job," LeBaron says. "There's a bit of a pride issue there."
Call them boomerang employees. As greener pastures turn brown — whether for personal or professional reasons — they acquire newfound appreciation for their former employers. But they often face a major obstacle: their own ego. After all, groveling for your old job back can be a humbling experience — especially if you've just spent that $300 Tiffany gift certificate your co-workers gave you at your going-away party.
"You don't have to come back with your hat in your hand, begging," contends David Russo, vice president of the Society for Human Resource Management. Not if you do a little recon first. After finding himself out of work, Damon Jones, a Fresno, Calif., auto technician, dreaded contacting a former employer. "I kind of thought I was a big man when I left — and now I was kind of crawling back," he explains. But through an ally at his old company, he learned that the boss had lost some customers since Jones's departure. "That gave me something to work with," he says. "I knew he'd want me back because of that."
Be prepared to sell yourself all over again. If you're asked why you want your old job back, never say, "I made a mistake," suggests Russo. Instead, explain that the newer job failed to meet your career-growth expectations — or blame your change of heart on personal reasons. Leverage your familiarity with the company by reminding your old boss that you're a proven worker there, and point out that the skills you've gained since you left make you even more valuable. Resist the temptation to reopen old wounds ("I would have stayed if it weren't for so-and-so").
Much of the time, companies are glad to see an employee return. "You're already trained, and it communicates to the rest of the workplace that, if you came back, it must not be that great out there," says John Putzier, a human-resources consultant. So don't be surprised if your former boss approaches you first. In fact, many companies sweeten the pot, with boomerang bonuses in the form of cash or extra vacation time.
Making a smooth reentry doesn't end with your boss. Your peers may throw up a few roadblocks of their own. At the very least, you can be sure they won't let you back without some ribbing. Just ask Ann Fox. On her last day at the United Way in Berks County, Pa., her co-workers presented her with a pewter necklace. So when she returned to her job as VP of major gifts six months later, a colleague promptly informed her about the "necklace calendar." "We all decided that the necklace will be available for all of us to use," she explained. "And I hope you don't need it Memorial Day, because someone's already using it."
Not as light-hearted are the bad vibes you may get from employees who now question your loyalty. How to handle them? Take on assignments that show your willingness to help the team, such as community-relations projects — "anything where you're the person following directions rather than the person giving them," Russo says. Another way to demonstrate you're a team player: be a listener at meetings. "Don't come in with an attitude that says, 'I've been away. I know more.'"
Marianna Suciu faced resentment when she returned to SAS Institute in Cary, N.C., after a year at another software firm. Following one meeting in which Suciu, the VP of strategy, offered her views on the company's sales strategy, a fellow manager pulled her aside. "I'm concerned," she told Suciu, and proceeded to recount how one colleague at the meeting wondered why Suciu "even cared at all." The reaction caught Suciu off guard: "I felt like the wind had just been taken out of my sails." The skepticism wasn't isolated. Another employee requested a meeting with her to find out whether she was "really in the game."
In both situations Suciu avoided being defensive. "I said, 'I can't deny that thought would have come to me, too. But I want you to know that I'm committed to the company.'" The incidents made her realize that, while you can go back, you can't expect things to be the same. "It's like leaving a ball team. You may have been a starting player, but when you left, someone else went into the game. You can't just come in and start running things again."