Finessing your return to a previous employer

It's OK to lean on past experience, but make sure you take a humble, forward-looking approach when returning to an organisation.
Finessing your return to a previous employer

Going to work for a completely new company is a daunting experience. But what happens when your new company is a company you've worked at before? Can you just slip back in? And will your history and any pre-existing relationships be an advantage or a drawback?

Sometimes it doesn't matter

If the company is a huge multinational and you're returning to a different business unit or the time elapsed is ten years, you will effectively be working at a new company that feels strangely familiar in places. Returning is much more of an issue if the business is small or medium-size or if you are going back within a few years.

Do your homework

Don't expect the company to be exactly the same. Even if you've been away for only a couple of years, a lot may have changed. Perhaps you left a business that was a mid-level player but is now at the top of its sector, or perhaps the market for the company's products has shrunk. Things could be different inside the business, too. There will be new alliances, some people will have moved on, and new people who have no idea who you are will have joined. Make an effort to rebuild old relationships and forge new ones.

Focus on the positives

If you are joining a new company, you have a huge amount of startup work to do, and your network will probably consist of a handful of people. You will have an outsider's view of the politics and culture. If you're returning, you will know most basics and will speak the company's language, with the advantage of having recently seen different ways of working and having a fresh perspective.

Use the opportunity to rebrand yourself

Even if many people who know you are still with the company, it's still a chance to reposition yourself. Make it clear that you're not the same old you. Rather, you've grown, you've got more experience, and you've got new skills. Think, too, about any negative perceptions that people might have had. Now is the time to change those perceptions.

Don't be too cocky, though

If you left to get more experience and have come back in a more senior role, this is a success story. But you shouldn't stride in like a conquering hero and lord it over those you once worked with. Instead, recognise that everyone has grown and progressed in their careers. Your progression may have been more rapid and impressive, but everyone will know that already. You can afford to show a little humility. Ask people to help you and bring you up to speed. Show that you're interested in what they've done over the last few years, too.

Be honest about returning in a similar role

Let's say you went off to do greater things and they didn't work out. In this case, just be honest about things not working out. Being straight about what happened is the best way to shut down gossip, move on, and get your career back on track. You can add a positive spin by saying that you learned a lot about yourself, about how organisations work, and about what is important to you. Don't worry too much about what others think. People are much more interested in their own careers than yours, and they'll forget about your setback sooner or later.

Be ready to apologise

It goes without saying that the possibility of returning is one reason you shouldn't settle scores and burn bridges when you leave. But what if you did? In this case, you have to eat your words and say you're sorry. Here, you should expect some snide remarks. But if you demonstrate genuine contrition and show that you are prepared to make amends and work hard, you will probably be forgiven in time.

Remember that you're not alone

What you're doing is quite normal. Particularly if you work in an industry with a few big players, at some point, you're likely to become a boomerang worker. Some companies, such as McKinsey, actively encourage employees to go away, get experience elsewhere, and return — and have thriving alumni networks.

Finally, make sure you have a forward focus

It's fine to talk about your previous time with the business, but don't wallow in nostalgia for the good old days when you worked there before. People are interested in where you're going, not where you've come from. Bringing up the past makes you look like part of the past, not the future.

Rhymer Rigby is an FM magazine contributor and author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at