IT Employment

How to go back to your old job when the new one doesn't fit

You've taken a new role that isn't a good fit, and while you're making more money, you'd still like to go back to your old employer. Career expert Molly Joss explains how best to approach that effort.

Question
I took a new job about three months ago—a slight promotion at a bigger company. My staff is larger and so is my paycheck, but I am beginning to think I have made a big mistake. I am not comfortable with some things my boss wants me to do and with how the company is managed. It’s more attitude than action most of the time, but they want me to make decisions based on doing whatever it takes to make the company profitable in the short-term. Is it too late to get my old job back?

Answer
Yes, it’s too late to get your old job back because by now they’ve either hired someone to take your place or they’ve figured out that they didn’t need to replace you.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t go back to your previous employer and find out if there is some other position you might be suited for, now or in the future. I am assuming that you left the company in good graces and that no one there is angry that you left. If this is the case, a phone call to your previous manager—or maybe a lunch meeting—may be all that’s needed to get the discussion going.

Going back to a previous employer is not unheard of—especially in industries that are dominated by a few major companies or where there are lots of companies that do similar work in a close geographic range. I know people who have left companies and come back within a year or a few years, but all returned to different positions.

Sometimes to move up the ladder in a particular company, you are better off leaving and returning later, rather than waiting for the rung directly above you to be vacated. Going and returning gives the company the option of bypassing someone who is, for some reason, stuck in a particular position. Working for a competitor for awhile can also make you attractive to a previous employer because they assume (rightly or wrongly) that you will return with valuable insider knowledge.

When you talk with your previous employer, make sure to be casual, but earnest, in your comments. Make sure to say that the reason you are getting in touch is that you genuinely miss the old company and how they do business. Explain that you left because you thought you were being given an opportunity that you would not have been able to realize otherwise. Be careful what you say about your current employer; don’t run your current employer down, but say enough to let your old boss read between the lines.

Forget trying to return to the previous company if you know you weren’t doing a good job or you jumped before you were pushed out of your job. You might get a job there again, but you won’t be able to move ahead from that position. The same is true if you made any important enemies while you were there.

Keep in mind that if your old company doesn’t work out because there aren’t any appropriate jobs available in the near future, your old boss and peers might still be able to help you. Ask them if they know about openings in other companies. If they liked working with you, then they will help you find something else, and they will provide good references.

While you are investigating the prospects at your previous company, make sure you continue doing your job to the best of your ability and without doing anything that you consider to be grossly immoral or illegal. Sometimes when people are in jobs they don’t like, they unconsciously start acting in ways that degrade their performance—hoping to get fired rather than having to resign. You want to keep on top of your emotions while you are searching for a new employer.

You didn’t mention being concerned about being asked to do something illegal, only that you’re being asked to cut corners in various ways. I am worried, though, because companies that take short cuts aren’t averse to doing things that are illegal. They work on the theory that most of the time no one notices or even knows that what they are doing is not legal. When they are wrong, it is usually the underlings who get fired or even go to jail—not top management.

Start keeping a journal (and please, do not use your corporate laptop to do this because it belongs to the company) about anything they ask you to do that you are uneasy about doing. Put in such details as who asked you, what you were asked to do, when, and your response. Keep your journal at home at all times, along with copies of related e-mails and memos, or consider renting a safe-deposit box. If you have any doubt about the legality of something you are asked to do, consult a lawyer privately.
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