Should You Take Back Your Ex-Employer?

What to do when your old job comes crawling back.

September 9, 2008, 6:15 PM

May 7, 2010 &#151; -- Last December, I wrote about The Goodwin Group, a small marketing agency in the Boston area that planned to rehire the junior employee it had laid off during the height of the recession -- just as soon as the company could afford it.

True to its word, the agency asked Amanda Zayas to return to her full-time salaried position as client services director this April.

"It was definitely what I wanted," said Zayas, who in the interim has been working at the agency one to two days a week, along with a couple other part-time jobs. "They've worked really hard to get me back. It's nice to know that I'm not just a number."

There was only one catch: Zayas, who's currently in the throes of finalizing her July wedding, didn't want to return to her salaried position until after her nuptials. Fortunately for Zayas, The Goodwin Group was happy to wait, rather than seek out a new candidate.

"She really made a big impression on us and our clients," said Tara Goodwin Frier, president of the company. "We made her wait for us, and we can definitely wait for her."

These days, taking back an ex-employer is about as common as taking back a former romantic flame. In an e-mail survey conducted last week by TheLadders, a job listing site for six-figure positions, 43 percent of 3,500 respondents said they've returned to work for a former boss at the same company or a new one at some point during their career.

But not all employer-employee reunions mirror the idyllic Peaches and Herb-style lovefest happening at The Goodwin Group. You might be offered less responsibility, less money or even a temporary contract without benefits, as opposed to a permanent, salaried position with all your former perks.

Assume Nothing

So before you rush back into the arms of the boss who cut you loose during the recession, make sure you consider all the angles.

"You've got to be very clear about the expectations before you return so that there's no misunderstanding about what you're being brought back to do," said Matthew Rothenberg, editor-in-chief of TheLadders. "It could be a different job."

Or, as was the case for "Bettina," a Pacific Northwest writer and editor who works in higher education, the position and pay you're being offered could pale in comparison to the ones you lost. (Like several people interviewed for this column, Bettina didn't want her real name used.)

The day after her summer 2009 layoff, Bettina's ex-employer offered her a year-long freelance contract -- for a measly $10,000. Not only would the work be sporadic and without benefits, Bettina said, but the company expected to her to drop everything and jump whenever they called.

"They just assumed that I would do this," she said. "It was a bit of a slap in the face."

After consulting with an employment attorney, Bettina learned that she would not be eligible for unemployment insurance if she accepted the bone her ex-employer was throwing her. So she declined the offer and chose to concentrate all her time on finding a new permanent position.

It was the right call. In February, she started a new full-time job she said is "far better than the previous one."

After being let go and living on odd jobs and unemployment checks, you might be wary about negotiating the terms of the position your former employer is offering. But you shouldn't be.

Remember, Rothenberg advised, it's a boon for your ex-employer to skirt the recruiting and training process and land someone who already knows their way around company culture, customers and procedures.

"In some ways," he added, "you can be a more effective negotiator because you know the ins and out of the company."

"Denise," a technology worker from Tampa, agreed.

"I came in as a known entity," said Denise, who returned in January to the employer that laid her off at the start of the recession. "I already have those relationships."

Because Denise had another job she liked when her ex-employer came calling (albeit a lower-paying one), she asked her former company for a 20 percent pay hike -- and got it.

"Georgette," an interior designer in Boston who was laid off in early 2009, doesn't plan to jump at the first figure her former employer offers, either. The company, which she said has reduced the salaries of its remaining staff by 20 percent, called her in "to talk" last month.

"They said they weren't ready to make an offer that day," Georgette said, "but that they knew that the best people were going to get snapped up first and that they wanted to make sure I gave them a chance before going somewhere else."

Georgette, who's been living on freelance work and unemployment checks since losing her job, is receptive to the idea of returning to her former employer -- but not if it means taking a pay cut. In the meantime, she's interviewing with other firms.

Beggars Can't Be Choosers?

Of course, the more desperate you are to start working again, the less you'll want to ask for the moon, said employment attorney Jay Warren, who's a partner in the New York office of law firm Bryan Cave LLP.

"You don't want to set conditions," explained Warren.

For example, he said, if your former star client or plumb project is now the domain of an ex-colleague, exclaiming, "You're not going to let that guy keep it, are you?" won't score you any points at the negotiation table.

"Richard," a video game producer in Seattle, will attest to that. When he convinced the company that laid him off in 2007 to give him a shot at a position a bit beyond his skill set, he didn't want to push for too many concessions. So he agreed to take the job on a trial basis last year, signing an eight-month contract rather than accepting a permanent staff position.

"For me, the most difficult part was balancing wanting to negotiate for something that was worthwhile and the incredible dread that came from being unemployed and maxing out my savings," Richard said.

"Jonathan," a technical support specialist from Kansas City, Missouri, can relate. When his former employer called at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night last year to ask him to return to work, he didn't care that it was for a lesser position than the one he'd lost in 2008. For one thing, he'd still be making the same salary. For another, he was about to run out of unemployment checks.

"The call to come back was a life saver for my family," said Jonathan, who skimped on health insurance and his much-needed cholesterol medicine while unemployed. "We were busting our heineys doing everything we could to keep our heads above water."

Compensation, job description and employee-vs.-contractor status aren't your only concerns when returning to an employer that laid you off, Warren said. You also need to consider the following details:

No Shame in Taking Back Your Ex [Employer]

No one would blame you for feeling a bit like the black sheep of the company after winding up on the wrong side of budget cuts. After all, everyone has their pride. But being asked to rejoin the team is confirmation that nothing could be further from the truth.

Jessica Leggette, an executive assistant in Phoenix who was devastated when let go last July, admitted she felt "awkward" and "a little insecure" about returning to work for her former employer this March.

"But those feelings quickly faded," she said. "By the end of the first week, it was as if I had never left."

"You're not coming back as damaged goods," Rothenberg said. "You've got to hold on to the thought that good people are let go for valid reasons. If they're asking you back, that's a pretty clear indication that you've proven yourself."

In other words: They like you! They really, really like you!

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire," and, "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube." Follow her at @anti9to5guide.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events