How to decide if returning to a former employer is the right choice

Unlike Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, most people don’t go back to their exes, unless they are teenagers. But what about returning to an ex-employer? Intuitively, this seems like a bad idea. After all, company cultures take a long time to change (two to five years, on average), so if you felt the urge to leave a job—or got fired—why on earth would you want to return?

Things are a little more complicated than that.

First, people often quit jobs based on other opportunities that emerge, and those opportunities may end up being far less attractive than they appeared to be. 

Second, it takes time to figure out what you really want in your career. In fact, as we mature and evolve not just as professionals, but also as humans, we refine our understanding of what really matters to us, what’s important, and what we truly want to prioritize in life. As a common example, consider someone who quits their job because they are tempted by a higher salary, only to discover that the extra pay does not justify doing a more boring job, working longer hours, or being part of a company that is in obvious conflict with their core values. Scientific research tells us this is more common than we think, not least because there is only a tiny correlation between pay and job satisfaction (just 2% of overlap between them according to meta-analyses). 

Third, career comebacks often involve a former employer, especially if you were wrong to leave in the first place. 

People are often tempted into new careers for the wrong reasons. Other than salary, there is a big marketing machine out there positioning jobs and organizations as utopias for spiritual fulfillment, persona growth, and astronomical career success. Recruitment has partly been co-opted by marketing, and it has never been easier for brands to curate their external image, reputation, and cultures to seduce smart and talented people into joining. But you shouldn’t trust everything you hear about companies, especially if it comes from them. 

Talks of a “Great Resignation” are also likely to create FOMO (fear of missing out) in those who decide to stick to their current employers. Humans learn by imitation, and we are social animals at heart. Just like our salary is valued in a skewed way (people would rather have a 5% increase if their colleagues get 0% than a 20% if their colleagues get 30%), our career self-evaluations are largely based on what we think of others’ level of success. So, when people tell you that you shouldn’t stay too long with your employer, you immediately worry. And when you hear that so many people have allegedly found a sense of belonging, calling, or purpose in their jobs, you start to wonder whether there is something wrong with you.

However, a proper assessment of how most people actually feel about work paints a rather different, less rosy, picture. For example, employee engagement data reports that only 3 in 10 employees are engaged at work, and scientific research shows that engagement only accounts for 9% of the variability between people’s performance (and half of that is dependent on people’s personality rather than how they are treated at work). Likewise, most people are fed up with their bosses, not least because they are poorly managed, largely because organizations tend to appoint managers on the basis of confidence rather than competence, and politics rather than performance

While skilled knowledge workers may brag about their sense of belonging, the vast majority of employees see work in the same vein most humans have throughout the history of our evolution: as a chore, burden, or survival vehicle. For every Michelangelo or Elon Musk, there are always millions of worker bees, but in modern times we discovered the utility of brainwashing them with purpose so they become spiritual workaholics. When companies turn their cultures into a cult, they attract possessed employees who are capable of throwing themselves into their jobs with 100% commitments even if they are overworked and underpaid. This may sound cynical, but it is a great management tactic, compared to, say, managing rational and balanced employees who understand that there is more to life than work, and that a job is just a job at the end of the day.

It’s helpful to look at some of the actual data on people’s career mistakes, regrets, and effective reinventions, as they provide useful lessons for anyone considering the pros and cons of returning to their old employer.

Skills acquired

Although values, personality, and abilities don’t change much throughout our lifespan, the job market does change significantly throughout people’s careers, as do the skills you can acquire and develop. One of the best ways to develop new skills is on-the-job learning, and if your old employer didn’t provide many opportunities to expand your skill set, they may be interested in having you back after you learn new key skills somewhere else. Consider someone who acquires new digital or analytics skills with a new firm, in order to turn into a key talent asset for their old employer. In my own academic career, I experienced a bit of that myself: The university from which I earned my PhD made me go somewhere else for teaching experience before they could hire me as a teacher because they didn’t have any junior vacancies.

Change in leadership

Whether you like or dislike your job is largely dependent on your boss, with research suggesting that 30% of employees’ engagement and performance can be attributed to their direct line manager. As the saying goes, people join companies but quit their bosses. It follows, that if your old boss is no longer around, even returning to the same job you had may be a very different proposition. 

Experiment

There is only one way to know what you want: try things out, experience, experiment. Unless you allow yourself to fail, you will never really succeed because in the best of cases you will not go outside your comfort zone and test the limits of your potential. And of course, learning from failings is the best way to enhance your understanding of your own potential as well as grow your career.

There may be good reasons to return to your former employer, especially if you can change—and hopefully upgrade—bosses, if your skills or interests have changed, or in the less likely event that your past employer has changed, at least in their talent priorities or focus areas.

Remember though, as Heraclitus famously stated, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” So long as you can carefully and objectively assess the costs and benefits of reuniting with your former employer, there’s no inherent or de facto reason to eliminate that possibility. Most important of all, no one else will care as much as you think, so do what feels right, understanding that it’s never possible to predict the outcome with perfect accuracy.