It seems like a tricky situation. You left your job for an intriguing opportunity, but then you realize that you made a mistake. Maybe you liked the old job better, or your new organization goes belly-up. Is it possible to go back?
Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal addressed this recently in a piece on career "mulligans." She interviewed several individuals who successfully resumed working for a former employer. The take-away? It might have been better never to leave, but if you figure out that a new job isn’t right for you, "every day that you spend there is another day you’ll feel unhappy and unfulfilled," said Bob Damon president of Korn/Ferry International, a Los Angeles-based executive-search and leadership-consulting firm, in her article.
A job is not a love affair. While a jilted lover might not be willing to take back a suitor who spurned her, it may be possible to return to a job you broke up with. So how can you be smart about trying to go back? It's going to involve eating a little crow, but it might not be as impossible as it seems. Here's how:
If you’re close to your old boss, and you know they haven’t replaced you yet, you may as well try. This approach works better in small offices where open positions don’t have to go through a formal HR process.
If that doesn’t describe your old company, or it’s been a few months since you left, the best approach is to get other offers. If you’d like to leave a new employer, you should be job hunting anyway. But having other options also makes you seem more desirable to your old employer. You aren’t just asking to come back. You’ve decided that your current employer isn’t going to work out, and you’re choosing from other options and asking if your old organization would like to be part of the mix. Since, even if they want you, they might not have anything open, having a back-up option will prevent you from having to stick with a bad situation.
If it’s been long enough, of course, you can apply for an open job at a higher level. The key here is to position your time outside of the company as part of building your skills. Particularly if your intermediate job involved managing people for the first time, you’ll have this as a new arrow in your quiver. With any luck, you’ll go back to the fold with a nice promotion and raise. I know one woman who wound up managing her former colleagues this way after a stint at another job.
The key to all this is to keep in mind why an organization might want former employees back. Sure, Shellenbarger notes that some employers "ban the practice altogether, to encourage loyalty," but this is pretty short-sighted in an era when no one keeps one job for life. Hiring new people is expensive and time-consuming, and new hires often don’t work out. An old employee already knows the culture and can make an impact from day one. While you certainly can’t act entitled to your old job back, you can make a sound economic argument.
Indeed, many smart managers already think this way. I was chatting a few years ago with a manager who was hiring, and she told me that her approach was going to be calling everyone who’d left in recent years and whose departure was regretted. Not everyone would say yes, of course. But a quick phone call is a lot easier than reading through hundreds of resumes. It was worth a shot.
Hat tip: Wall Street Journal