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Staff Recycling

Dear Dave
Three years ago, a promising young engineer left us to take a position with one of our competitors. He felt his career progress at our firm was too slow in coming. The firm he was leaving to join made a number of promises of increased responsibility and compensation. We tried to talk him out it, and even offered to consider a pay increase, but his mind was set and he went to the other firm anyway. Leaving when he did kind of left us in the lurch on a couple of projects, but we made adjustments and everything eventually worked out. We really hated to see this individual go as we felt he would become a key project designer given a few more years of experience.

I ran into this person recently at a professional society meeting. During the course of our chat, he asked me if there might be a position open for him at our firm and would we consider rehiring him. Turns out, he’s not all that happy where he is and wants to explore the possibility of returning. I talked to my two partners about this and the first had no opinion one way or the other, but my second partner was absolutely adamant that taking this person back would send a very bad message to the staff and we shouldn’t do it on principle—"He walked out on us, why should we help him now?" What do you think?

Dear KL
On a visceral level, I can sympathize with your partner’s feelings however, I think it is just way too shortsighted to say no without giving it serious consideration. Assuming you have a suitable position available, there are a number of important benefits that could be gained by rehiring this person.

First and foremost is not cutting off your nose to spite your face. Good people are very hard to come by. If in the intervening years this engineer has matured the way you felt he would, he comes back to you more valuable than when he left. Not only has he had the benefit of more years under his belt, he has the added advantage of the broader perspective and range of experiences that come from having worked in another firm.

Experience has shown that people who leave a company, and later return, often become the firm’s most loyal employees and serve as a living, breathing example to others at your firm that the grass is not always as green as advertised on the outside. It may also assist the recruiting process by demonstrating that people who leave often return.

I’m a strong believer that you cannot expect to keep everyone you’d care too. It’s not possible to be able to run a professional service company and perfectly balance that with the needs and interest of each and every individual employee at all times. For sure, if someone is unhappy, we need to work to reasonably correct whatever might be causing that unhappiness. If on the other hand someone is leaving not because something is particularly wrong, but rather to pursue something not available to them at your firm, it's wise to let them go, but with the understanding we would like them to consider coming back if things don’t work out.

Gensler, a prestigious San Francisco-based international design and architectural firm is noted for doing just that. If someone the firm values leaves Gensler to pursue other opportunities and experiences, Gensler goes out of its way to stay in touch with them after they’ve left and keeps the door open for them should they someday wish to return. When people do rejoin the firm, they are each formally presented with a boomerang as a symbol of their roundtrip journey of discovery. Boomerangs are prominently displayed in all Gensler offices worldwide as a visualization of the firm’s philosophy. Fully 12% of Genlser’s staff are "boomerangs". Not only do you regain a good person, you invigorate the firm’s ideas and creativity pool by the new and different experiences they bring back with them.

So, never say "never". It’s simply not in anyone’s best interest.

Wahby and Associates