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Ideas

The (old) new hire

Returning to an old job used to look like career suicide. But a new generation is rewriting the playbook.

By Schuyler Velasco

In 2010, Kevin Wu, a supply chain analyst for Unilever, decided that figuring out ways to ship Dove Body Wash to stores more efficiently wasn’t what he wanted to be doing with his life.

“My whole objective was to pursue a different lifestyle,” he says. “I was financially comfortable, but complacent.”

So Wu quit and used his savings to travel the world. He got “very passionate” about home brewing. He even put together a bid in his native Ohio to open and operate a Bureau of Motor Vehicles. (This is a thing you can do in Ohio.)

When none of that worked out, he went back to the consumer goods giant in 2012. An opening had come up, and there was a lot he missed about his old job.

A decade or two ago, Wu’s path would have been unusual. In many cases, it was even prohibited. But now, many companies are accepting, even actively courting, so-called “boomerang” employees. And the stigma of returning to an old workplace is fading, in favor of stability, status, a boost in pay — and a different way of defining career trajectories and success itself.

A fixation on forward momentum has long framed American notions of accomplishment. The ladder is the metaphor by which we evaluate a career trajectory. Stability can be suspect; one business advice blog recently warned that “if you work at the same job for too long, prospective employers may assume that you are not motivated or driven to achieve.” Research from LinkedIn shows that job-hopping has doubled in the past 20 years.

But that growing impetus to switch jobs can also send people back to familiar places, says Lee Caraher, whose 2017 book “The Boomerang Principle” advises companies on how to build loyalty among employees. She sees the boomerang phenomenon as a sign that society is evolving beyond the “ladder” mentality — something that’s evident even in the way hiring practices have changed. In a 2015 study by research firm Workplace Trends, nearly half of HR professionals surveyed reported working for a company that, in the past, had explicit rules against hiring ex-employees. But 76 percent said their companies have become more accepting of rehires. It’s now widely recommended that businesses maintain active alumni networks to leverage former employees’ experience and connections, as well as to leave the door open for a return.

Wu returned to Unilever a changed man. His exploits made him “a bit of a rebel” in the world of supply chain management.

Caraher’s own San Francisco-based PR firm, Double Forte, has 30 employees, about half of whom are on their second or third stint. Some of that, she thinks, is generational. “Millennials have a much more sane position on career and life goals than Boomers and Gen Xers on how to patchwork a career, not just ladder up,” she says.

But writers and thinkers of all ages have been pushing back at the notion of climbing up at the expense of all else. When the “Lean In” movement took off in 2012, critics argued that Sheryl Sandberg’s career focus was myopic, and ignored or trivialized the external factors in many women’s lives. Heather Havrilesky, who writes the advice column “Ask Polly” for The Cut, has railed against the appearance of progress for its own sake. (Her forthcoming collection of essays is called “What if This Were Enough?”)

“The kinds of people who bray endlessly about how your various life choices will look on your résumé are the kinds of people who tend to have pretty limited, predictable, unexceptional careers,” Havrilesky recently told one advice-seeker.

Still, that shift in mindset isn’t always easy. Despite a growing acceptance of winding career paths, returning to the old office can feel odd, even daunting, especially after you’ve made a triumphant exit.

“I was worried I’d chickened out on pushing myself,” says Meredith Krantz, who returned to her old job (even her old desk) as an ad sales director for the news website Slate in April. “It was awkward to show my face in the office when I was interviewing for a job I’d already gotten.”

But then she reminded herself of the concrete reasons she had for returning: She loved the product, and getting a job at Slate the first time had been a dream come true.

Other “boomerangers” realize that career diversions can make them better, or happier, in their original jobs. That’s what happened to Meredith MacKenzie, who left a Washington, D.C. public relations firm in 2015 to pursue a second career in the foreign service, going to school overseas and working at the U.S. embassy in Liberia.

MacKenzie found herself back in job-hunting mode at the start of the Trump administration, when the State Department wasn’t hiring. Feeling adrift, she reached out to her old boss about possible freelance work. Instead, he offered her a job.

“It occurred to me: Would I feel weird? Would I feel like I had wasted my time trying to change careers? But it didn’t feel that way.” she says. And in addition to a promotion, the return meant she could put down roots and stay close to her family — things she would have given up for a career in foreign service.

MacKenzie’s stab at a second career turned out to be a benefit: Her contacts abroad were useful to her firm, which works with foreign development NGOs and advocacy groups. It also gave her perspective.

“Preventing violence around elections, or professionalizing a police force, sometimes is life or death,” she says. On the other hand, “it isn’t life or death in PR.”

So workplace crises that would make her anxious during her last stint at the company don’t feel like the end of the world. “I had to do a lot to get this level of chill and separation,” she laughs. 

The corporate world is making increasing nods to the idea that employees have lives outside of work — and obligations that include not just parenting but fitness, health, family care, even sleep. Dick’s Sporting Goods, for instance, has a jobs program specifically tailored to fit the scheduling needs of Olympic athletes, who have to spend much more time than the average person on training and taking care of their bodies.

Caraher argues that it’s more realistic to assume that our myriad life obligations inform our work, rather than get in the way of it. But it may be easier to find that acceptance in a place that already knows you.

“Maybe you are taking care of an ailing parent, or young children, and you need that capital you’ve built up to leverage for more flexibility in your day,” she says. “It’s hard to get a new job and ask for that.”

The need for better balance helped motivate event planner Katharine Panessidi to return to Comexposium, a company that holds industry conferences, when she was pregnant with her first child. Working at home allowed her to maximize time with her daughter, and “if I had to run an errand, I ran an errand,” says Panessidi, who now works for Bose.

Wu, for his part, returned to Unilever a changed man: His exploits made him “a bit of a rebel,” he jokes, at least in the world of supply chain management. He also got a promotion and was given more responsibility, so the job was more rewarding than the first go-round.

His second stint at Unilever lasted six years — a pretty long tenure, these days. Yet the itch for a different kind of life, which prompted him to leave the first time, never quite got scratched. Last April, he gave notice that he would be quitting in July. “I’m going to travel and look into ways of supporting myself other than what I’m doing now,” he said at the time.

Still, as with the first time, he was careful not to burn any bridges on the way out. “I’m giving them plenty of time to find someone to take over my spot,” he said. “The boss and other people have been very cool about it.”

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Schuyler Velasco is senior writer for Experience.

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