Now Hiring: Your Old Company As the job market comes alive, businesses are looking to bring back their former stars. Becoming a "boomerang" can be smart--if you know how to play the game.
By Beth Brophy

(Business 2.0) – It wasn't really goodbye. For three years, 32-year-old David Samuels worked at Level 3 Communications in Broomfield, Colo. As the director of strategic alliances for one of the nation's leading providers of wholesale Internet services, he worked with consumer media and satellite companies to make sure they had all the bandwidth they needed. He did his job so well, in fact, that another tech company offered Samuels a better opportunity, which he mulled over before doing the logical thing. He took it.

But Samuels soon found himself facing a difficult decision. Within months he realized that the new job didn't suit him, and learned from former colleagues that Level 3 might want him back. "I missed a culture of teamwork, and the belief that competition is outside the walls, not inside," he recalls. But the question was, could Samuels go home again?

As the job market reignites, more and more workers are facing this dilemma. Companies that were forced to lay off staffers after the tech bubble burst are now pursuing what headhunters refer to as "boomerangs." "Hiring people back is an effective way to repatriate intelligence," says Dale E. Jones, a managing partner in the Atlanta office of executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles International. While no one tracks the number of employees returning to previous workplaces, headhunters say they undoubtedly see a trend. "We've already placed two or three boomerangs this year," Jones says. "Before that, we had maybe one every two years."

Since tech companies typically function as meritocracies, they're particularly inclined to hire boomerangs, says Scott Gordon, a senior director at Spencer Stuart in San Mateo, Calif. "The focus is on getting the best talent for the job," he explains, "not whether the person once left." Boomerangs have recently landed key positions at Microsoft and Apple. At Sprint, CEO Gary Forsee returned to the company last year after being lured away from BellSouth.

But boomerangs don't come back without working through some issues first. "I thought the others might see me as disloyal," says Samuels, who nonetheless quickly decided to throw his hat in the ring at Level 3. Going back can also feel like an admission of defeat, a sign that you can't cut it elsewhere.

The healthier attitude is to give yourself credit for having left in the first place. Taking a risk, even one that doesn't pan out, can be easily spun into a positive. "You left for a dotcom that failed," says Deborah Brown-Volkman, a career coach in East Moriches, N.Y. "Everyone understands that." And as Spencer Stuart's Gordon points out, bosses often come to appreciate their employees more after they've left. "In a three- or four-year time period, you may advance faster by moving to another company and coming back than by waiting to be tapped by your own CEO," he says. Indeed, Samuels landed an expanded role at Level 3, as vice president for product marketing.

Boomerangs are also in a solid position to ask for more money than they were making when they left, based mainly on what they don't need when they return: hand-holding. Dory Hollander, an executive coach in Arlington, Va., says a returnee saves a company at least a year's worth of time spent bringing a new hire up to speed, which she figures is worth a 20 percent premium over the person's previous salary. "And if the company is desperate to have you back," she says, "shoot for more."

Still, Hollander says that even after you reach accord on title and salary, your strategizing is far from done. Next comes winning over your former/new colleagues, whom you should start meeting with one-on-one. "Emphasize that you learned a lot while you were gone, but that you're grateful to be back," she says. "You're reinforcing that they made a good decision to stay."

Samuels took this sort of advice to heart. Suddenly faced with the notion that his peers might be envious of his unconventional rise, he immediately went on a goodwill tour that would make a presidential candidate proud. Samuels scheduled meals and coffee breaks to figure out what others needed from him--not vice versa. Now, a year into his return, he couldn't be more satisfied. He says he's forged good relationships and his first product launch delivered better-than-expected sales. And though it's not in his job description, Samuels also helps other managers by talking to frustrated Level 3 workers who may be considering moving on. His best advice is to think hard about what you're leaving before you go, and if you do decide to walk out the door, don't slam it behind you. "High-tech is a small community," he says. "You never know where people are going to turn up."