Lessons From a Recovering Boomerang Employee

Given how many workers are planning to quit their jobs, employers must consider welcoming back top performers, writes Jessica M. Nicklin, who experienced it firsthand.

December 8, 2022
Illustration of a businessman throwing a boomerang and it returns to hurt him.
(Nuthawut Somsuk/istock/getty images plus)

In recent months, we’ve heard increased chatter about “boomerang employees”—those who leave and then return to an organization. Boomeranging is on the rise, and while it was once seen as a faux paus, employers now seem more open to rehiring former employees for many reasons, including the employee’s familiarity with the company, established relationships and cost savings associated with hiring and onboarding.

In fact, empirical research demonstrates that boomerang employees outperform new hires, and re-entry yields improvements in the satisfaction and organizational commitment of boomerangers. Given the projection that one in five workers globally are planning to quit their jobs, employers must think strategically about how to welcome back their top performers.

Across many industries, from health care to hospitality, employees are feeling burned out and overextended, wondering if the grass may be greener somewhere else. That has been especially true in academe, where the pandemic has forced many faculty members out of a field they once loved due to unsustainable demands, low salaries and frustrating bureaucracy. They have been gravitating toward higher-paying industries with more flexible work arrangements. But what if the grass is, in fact, not greener outside academe?

I am an academic boomeranger here to share my experience, with the hopes of aiding others who are considering taking the plunge into corporate and other types of work. I suspect that my experience may resonate with and will be helpful for those currently grappling with the post-pandemic stresses of higher education.

Who Am I?

I dedicated nearly all of my adult life to academe. While I had some industry experience, I took a tenure-track job before the ink was dry on my doctoral diploma. I was an award-winning scholar, distinguished faculty member and accomplished administrator. I was a good citizen of the university—so good, in fact, that I wound up being its COVID coordinator.

There is nothing quite like swabbing thousands of noses and serving as the point of contact for irate parents during a global pandemic to make you question your life decisions. (At the time, I was also expecting my second child.) And once all that COVID work was over, I didn’t know who I was anymore—how to live without the same level of intensity fueled by a global pandemic. How do I just go back to normal? What is normal? What is my actual job? Once the wheels of turnover started spinning, I couldn’t stop the constant self-questioning: “What’s next for me? Who am I? What is my story?”

I needed a new challenge. And I wasn’t going to get it in academe.

‘What Have I Done?’

After casually monitoring the job market for a few months, I landed an amazing corporate opportunity. It was great! I loved the challenge, my team, the work and the organizational values. It was so refreshing to be somewhere new, learning and meeting people. And while it is important to note that I did not necessarily leave for the salary, the compensation and benefits were icing on the cake: unlimited paid time off! An annual bonus! Hybrid work! Why did this take me so long? I wondered.

But after only about two months, I started realizing that things were not as they seemed, and the honeymoon was quickly over. For several reasons, I started to ask myself instead, “What have I done?” Sure, folks didn’t email after 5:00 p.m., but I was still working into the wee hours. Yes, there was “flexibility” and unlimited PTO, but it came at a cost.

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Most important, I had no real community. In higher education, I had taken for granted how much I value and need colleagues who share ideas with and support me. In this new position, I had no support. I was lonely, tired and depressed. I missed my peers and the students. I missed the autonomy of intellectual curiosity. I missed the rhythm of academe. I missed the comradery. And I missed making a difference.

Lessons Learned

I don’t regret leaving my academic job. The curiosity was too strong, and I had to scratch that itch. And, in fact, I also know that I am a stronger employee now because I left and returned. I am more energized and engaged. I know what kind of leader I am and who I want to be. I am more committed to the institution, and it has shown it is committed to me.

The moral of the story is: if you think that you are burned out on academe, take the risk and try something new. Life is too short to live with regrets. That said, I recommend you consider taking the following steps first.

  • Talk to your boss—your dean, chair, provost, president or whomever—before going on the job market. I began my job search before letting anyone know that I was unhappy. By the time my supervisor provided an alternative, I was already committed to leaving. Don’t make this decision on your own. Your leadership can’t help you if they don’t know you need help.
  • Look for more opportunities within. Before leaving your institution, explore with your leadership if any growth opportunities are available. You may not have to leave the institution to find new challenges and a sense of fulfillment. Job crafting can make your current experience more meaningful and engaging.
  • “Leave” on good terms. Even if you think you are never coming back, ask for a one-year leave of absence. That gives you the opportunity to try something new but also keeps the door open for a return. Similarly, consider a sabbatical, part-time consulting work or an internship for academics where you can return more engaged with new knowledge and skills.
  • Stay in touch. If possible, stay connected to the institution, which keeps you top of mind if you decide to return. I kept teaching as an adjunct and maintained my personal and professional relationships. That allowed me to maintain continuity on my CV as well.
  • Be pulled, not pushed. Make sure that you are working toward something meaningful and important—not running away from a negative situation. Be excited and engaged by your professional pursuits, whether they are staying, leaving or returning.

And, finally, a message for institutional leaders: allow your talented faculty and administrators to go, and be flexible and open to them coming back. They might just take you up on it. What is the old saying? “If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever. If it doesn’t, then it was never meant to be.” Maybe it isn’t forever, but it is fulfilling and rewarding, and for now, that is OK.

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Jessica M. Nicklin is assistant provost of graduate studies and associate professor of psychology at the University of Hartford.

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