Welcome Back to Prodigal Employees?

Oct 01, 1993

In seven years at XYZ Engineers, Bill Jones had become one of the firm’s most dependable project managers. Bill’s jobs always made money, and his clients loved him. Unfortunately, XYZ had gone through three bad years in a row, and Bill had started to openly question some of the principals’ business decisions. Bill wasn’t happy when he opened his quarterly bonus check one October. And, as it happened, that same day he received a call from a headhunter. Before he knew it, Bill was having breakfast at Denny’s with the president of arch-rival ABC Group, who offered him a 20% raise to jump ship. The next week, Bill turned in his notice (along with a piece of his mind) and started work at ABC Group two weeks later. One of the principals at XYZ said “good riddance,” claiming Bill had always been something of a prima donna. Within a week, Bill knew he had made a mistake. While XYZ had been rather stodgy, the firm had an excellent reputation and a sleek office in a prominent location. By contrast, ABC Group was located in a metal building behind an auto-body shop and looked as though it had been furnished at a yard sale. There was virtually no filing system, and nothing got done until it reached a crisis stage (which happened daily). One day, the president of XYZ Associates got a surprise telephone call. Bill had swallowed his pride and was ready to ask for his old job back. Given the close-knit fabric of the design and environmental consulting industries, almost every firm has faced this situation (or a similar one) at one time or another. Forget about people you’re glad to see go. What should you do when a formerly valued professional wants to return home? For most, the answer depends on the circumstances. Following are some items you might want to consider. How did the employee leave? John Aughinbaugh, vice president, Carter & Burgess, Inc., Dallas, draws a distinction between circumstantial and “employee-initiated” leave-takings: In the first case, employees leave for compelling reasons (e.g., lean times for the firm), and their loyalty isn’t really in question. Taking them back is a pretty safe bet. In the second, they leave abruptly or angrily, with the attitude that they don’t need the firm anymore. In this case, it’s hard to forget the bad taste he left behind. Where did he/she go? To a competitor? Benjamin Beavin, president of Beavin Company, a 35-person, Baltimore-based consulting engineering firm, says that would have to weigh in his thinking. On the other hand, Lynn Vermeer, president of Bahr Vermeer & Haecker Architects, a 50-person firm based in Lincoln, Nebraska, is open to rehiring former employees from competitors. Will history repeat itself? Jerry V. Boland, AIA, president of Gray Design Group, Inc., a 17-person architecture firm, hired one person from the same company twice. He’s now the firm’s CADD manager, and Boland is more than satisfied with his performance. However, not everybody we spoke with would be this understanding. Have they learned from the experience? It’s always worth thinking about taking a good person back, says Carter & Burgess’ Aughinbaugh— particularly “if a guy made a stupid mistake and learned from it.” How to treat the returning employee? Whether to welcome someone back is one matter. How grand a welcome to give is another. The prodigal son was taken back with open arms, but the prodigal employee might be greeted with cuts in pay and fringes or a loss of seniority. One environmental firm we contacted counts former service in allocating vacation and sick leave to returning employees, but salary and job grade are negotiated from scratch, as with new employees. Should there be a formal policy on rehiring? The best policy is probably no policy, at least not a written one— some people you don’t want back. Handle these matters on a case-by-case basis. J.W. Ach, president of Cincinnati-based Hixson, tries to avoid driving proven performers away by supporting them in tough times, regardless of the bottom line. His approach toward employees who do leave is to wish them well and to keep the door open. To which we add— in the case of sharp people who leave without any parting insults, it’s even worth calling them a month or two later. Originally published 10/01/1993

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.