How to Approach a Former Employer for a New Job

Especially in a tight job market, many companies will welcome back former employees who left under good terms.

They say you can’t go home again — or can you? Experts say you should definitely consider former employers when seeking the next rung on the career ladder, but a diplomatic approach and sturdy, unburned bridges are must.

“In a tight job market, the decision to return to a former employer should be part of a comprehensive job-search strategy,” said Roy Cohen, author of “The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide” and a career coach. “Unless you left for reasons involving criminal activity or sub-par performance, and your employment file indicates that under no uncertain terms could you ever be re-hired, then the decision is yours.”

Deborah Millhouse agreed, especially if you are looking to return to a company but not necessarily a similar position.

“You absolutely should consider all options when looking for a new job,” said Millhouse, president of CEO Inc., a full-service recruiting and human capital firm. “If your former employer has an opportunity to help you hit your career goals and objectives, you should consider returning to the company, especially if you can come back at a different level in a different division, department or functional area.”

There are also many benefits to the employer: Among other advantages, a returning employee is a known quantity, which may reduce startup time as well as on-boarding and training costs.

“From the perspective of an employer, we are a business that has hired back a few former employees that have worked out quite well,” said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation, a company that helps organizations incorporate. “We made sure to provide extensive clarity and detail with regard to the position and expectations, but we found ‘the talk’ prior to re-hiring to be a very successful approach. The former employees already know the business, so training is minimal, and therefore the hiring process becomes more efficient than hiring a brand-new employee.”

Sweeney added that one condition for rehiring is that the person must have a renewed interest or passion in the business.

A fresh tank of gas

Indeed, your desire to explore a new position with an old employer should be expressed carefully. You don’t want to look like you have come crawling back or are settling in any way. Experts agree that job seekers should be prepared to state clear reasons for wanting to return as well as demonstrate the growth they have undergone while away.

“If you resigned to advance your career or to make more money, you’ll need a good reason to explain your decision to return,” said Cohen. “Bear in mind that former bosses and companies tend to see us as they always have, so part of your story should focus on expanded skills and valuable experience gained while away.”

So, how do you make a smooth re-entry?

For one thing, don’t just answer an ad without any additional networking or even schmoozing.

“You will need to reconnect with former co-workers and bosses to let them know that you are interested in coming back,” said Cheryl Palmer, a certified career coach. “It’s a good idea to start by putting out feelers to see if there are any positions that are open that you would be qualified for. You can take a former co-worker out to lunch to re-establish the relationship, or set up a networking meeting with a former boss to see how open the company would be to you returning. In addition, you can join any alumni groups that the company has on LinkedIn to reconnect with people in the organization.”

But, adds Cohen, don’t expect to be able to slack off during the hiring process because you have some insider knowledge: “Just because you already worked for the company doesn’t mean that you should be any less prepared for your interviews. Inside information and key relationships are great, but you will still need to demonstrate relevance.”

Prepare for changes

If you decide to accept an offer from a former employer, expect the unexpected. While the core company culture has not likely changed dramatically, there are sure to be new people, new processes and new politics in place.

“Even if you are returning to a company where you previously worked, it’s not going to be the same experience, and that’s something that candidates should be aware of,” said Marina Gapeenkova, a certified human-resources professional. “They are going to be working with different people; with a different manager; possibly in a very different position, capacity or department. So, it is going to be very much like a totally new job, save for the name of the company. … This may cause initial dissonance upon starting with the company again and can create some tension. To minimize the impact of such dissonance, the best thing is to approach the new job at the old company with a very open mind.”

Of course, all of this lends credence to that old adage: Don’t burn your bridges. Job hunting at a company you worked for in the past won’t be fruitful if you settled scores on your way out the door instead of resigning with gracious goodbyes (even if they were through gritted teeth).

“Baggage from the last time around can make things tough,” said Cheryl Heisler, president of Lawternatives, a career consultancy for lawyers. “Whatever reasons prompted you to leave the company need to have been resolved before you can even think about going back.”