how to ask for your old job back

A reader writes:

Seven weeks ago, I left a job of five years with a nonprofit for a higher salary and the possibility of advancement at a much larger for-profit company. I liked working for my old employer, but the pay and opportunity were too tempting. My manager understood, and I left on a high note with recommendations from her, her boss, and even the CEO. My boss’s boss even made the offer that I could “come back anytime” if things didn’t work out at the new company.

And they haven’t. The new job has been nothing short of a nightmare. I was assured that work-life balance is important during interviews, but everyone on my team works around the clock, and my mentors lack experience and confidence in their ability to get me up to speed. Morale is low across the board. It has been a learning experience, and not one I want to suffer through for six months or more.

My old position has not been filled yet, but although I left on great terms, I know getting it back is no sure bet. My manager was encouraging when I left, but we were not close and I am unsure how best to approach her. Can you help me rebuild this bridge?

Email your former manager. Tell her the grass was not greener after all and that you’re thinking of moving on from the new company. Tell her that you’d love to talk about coming back if that’s something they’d be interested in.

Some people will tell you that you should pick up the phone and call for this conversation, but if I were your manager, I’d appreciate getting an email about it instead — because there’s a decent chance that she’s going to be taken off-guard and that she’ll want to put her thoughts together — and maybe talk to others there — before responding.

If she shuts you down — for instance, if she tells you that they have an offer out for your old job or have already hired someone — then you can consider whether it makes sense to reach out to others at the company, like the higher level manager who told you that you were welcome back anytime. Realize, of course, that people sometimes say that when someone is leaving and it doesn’t always mean they’ll have a position available when you decide to take them up on it … but there would be no harm in reaching out to them and saying that you know your old position is being filled but that you’d love to talk with them if they think a different role for you there might make sense.

By the way, if you do that, let your old manager know that you plan to. Either way, you’ll want to thank her for getting back to you and wish her luck with the new hire — and if you’re going to reach out to others, mention that too, so that she doesn’t hear about it later and think you went around her to try to undo her hiring decision or anything like that.

But before you do any of this, there’s one important thing to consider: If you go back to this company, you need to be committed to staying for a good long time. If they take you back and then you leave again in a year, you’re going to sour the relationship — and you shouldn’t sour a relationship that currently sounds very positive. So think carefully about why you were job searching in the first place (assuming you were) and whether you really want to go back or whether it’s just an easy escape from your current situation. Because you don’t want to find yourself shortly wanting to leave all over again.

Good luck!

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. Lisa*

    I did this. You need to flatter your old manager. Tell her you miss the work, the people, and camaraderie. And be honest like AAM says, ‘the grass wasn’t greener’ and that you realize now that the reasons why you left were not as important as the work that you miss and the company that you really liked. You should also address that you will be moving on from this new company regardless of whether you are hired back, but that before you start seriously looking again you wanted to check to see if you could come back as that would be your first choice. You also need to convince your old boss that you won’t leave again in a few months. So focus on how your perception of the job has changed and how internally you have realized that you want growth but realize now that you can still accomplish that within your old role. Be careful not to talk salary / benefits. You want them to come back and give you the same stuff you had before and keep the seniority vs. restarting the clock with a new review date from 1 year of new start date. Make sure that you get an offer letter stating as such, and also you may want to give a year long commitment promise verbally for good measure.

    1. Susan*

      Hi, I do hope you can help me or give me some advice. Last 5 years ago I had a contract job for my dream job and when my contract ended i asked my boss to give me a reference letter and she just told me I can just give the company her phone number and did not give me a reference letter. Last year they are hiring for a full time and i called her telling her that i am very much interested and she told me she will call me back abd when i called her after 2 months the position has been filled. Right now i saw there website and they are hiring a contract position again and i would really want to go back to that job. My problem is i need a convincing letter to my ex boss. I would like her to give me a second chance to work with her. After I left that job I studied accounting and finished it for a year and after that i work through agency on and off job and got a car accident which stop me working for years. Right now I am ready to work and desperate. Please help me to send email to my ex boss. Thank you and God Bless.

  2. Wilton Businessman*

    I did this once for more pay. After three months at the new place, I realized it wasn’t working out. Really, after about 3 weeks I figured it out, but wanted to make sure it wasn’t just nerves.

    I had a pretty good relationship with my previous manager, other managers on his level, and the director of the group. I just came clean to both my previous manager and the director saying that I made a big mistake and if they hear of something opening up, I would appreciate the consideration. All three of us went to lunch the next day and they made an offer which I accepted without even thinking about it.

  3. Josh S*

    Somewhat off-topic, but when you’re interviewing and are concerned about work-life balance, don’t ask directly about work-life balance. Instead, ask the person you’re interviewing when they normally come in and leave for the day. It’s much more specific, and much less likely to get you a scripted line about the company’s awesome work-life arrangements, and much more likely to get you an honest picture of how the company actually operates (especially if there’s a disconnect between the organization in general, and the team you’re interviewing for in particular).

    1. Josh S*

      Or if they talk up their work-life balance proactively (so you don’t feel like you have much of an ‘in’ to ask about it further), you can ask something like, “When did you come in to work and when did you leave work yesterday?”

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        I wish I’d been smart enough to ask this at my last company. They were all “we heart work-life balance!” but if I had asked THAT question, if they’d been honest with me they’d have had to say, “Uh, I came in at 8:30 and left at 8:30.”

    2. Josh S*

      I guess what I’m saying (Good Lord, I cannot brain today. I needed to get more sleep last night.) is that interviewing tips go both ways. An interviewer isn’t likely to ask a candidate “So, are you any good at doing _______?” because the answer is always going to be positive (or spun that way, at a minimum). A good interviewer will ask “Tell me about a time when you _______” and then ask follow-up questions for details.

      The same tips work for job hunters when you’re ‘interviewing’ the team/company: Don’t ask if the company culture is employee-friendly — DO ask what the hours your interviewer worked last week were.
      Don’t ask if it’s a collaborative environment. DO ask about a time when the prospective team members worked together on a project and how did it turn out.

      Behavioral Interview Questions FTW!

      1. Leslie Yep*

        Completely agree–the examples are super important. If someone asked me about the work-life balance in the company I work for, it would be easy to tell them that it’s great. Lots of paid leave, lots of flexibility with hours, location, etc. But it’s not the whole story, because really to be successful here you probably need to work in the 50-60 hours per week range, you will likely lose the ability to disconnect your Blackberry at the “end” of the day, you’ll probably feel compelled to travel often, and others. All relate to balancing work and home, but you want to hear about it in practice, not in policy. Our policies are great! But you need to be really diligent in using them to achieve the appropriate balance.

      2. Esra*

        I had honestly never thought about it this way, this is great advice Josh S!

        (That I hope I can put to use soon *cough*)

      3. Diane*

        Great point! I interviewed with a company that kept dodging my questions about what a typical day or week was like. I wish I’d asked them a few specific, fact-based questions like “What time did you come in and leave yesterday?”

    3. Jennifer*

      I think that is good advice, but it’s specific to the person who is interviewing you, and they simply may not be representative of the company as a whole. They may not be in the same type of job, may have more benefits if they are senior to your position, or maybe someone who voluntarily burns the candle at both ends. More questions/follow up questions along the same line would be a good idea in this case (is that a normal schedule for people who will be in my role, how many people take advantage of flex time, etc)

      1. Josh S*

        Yes, you’re right about differences in position and attitude, etc. But if you ask the question of several people with whom you interview, you’ll have a good idea of the reality. If the policy is really friendly, but the department is FULL of people who voluntarily burn the candle at both ends…well, you’re not going to be happy there. Asking the specific question draws out the reality rather than the policy.

    4. Jessa*

      This is a really good idea that I never thought of. You want to try and ask questions that tell you what you want to know not what they want you to hear. And asking about their actual day should hopefully get that.

    5. NYC*

      That is a great way to address that issue! Love that- definitely going to word it that way next time. My current job was the same – ‘oh, we love work- life balance’ – turns out none of them barely have a life outside the office. I am non-exempt so they don’t make me stay because they don’t want to pay OT, but they would if they could. I am the only one out of 18 employees who have young kids, and I never knew what a difference that would be going in…Next job, It would be nice to get the ‘inside’ opinions of employees who work there and what they say…doubtful, but still, would be nice. If an employee coming in asked for opinion on something, I wouldn’t throw my company under the bus- but I would surely be as honest as possible.

    6. Jazzy Red*

      Or, if you can, drive past the place at the time of day that you would like to start work and see how many cars are in the parking lot. Or drive by in the evening, and check.

    7. Anonymous*

      That’s a great idea. I have been trying to figure out how to suss this out at my next interview (if I ever have one) because I do feel like my current company sort of lied about the “work life balance” thing. Or as I like to say, I don’t have to worry about work/life balance because thanks to work, I have no life!

  4. Melissa*

    I’ve done this too! I quit my job because I was expecting my first child and was in “morning (read: all day) sickness hell.” Thinking I just wouldn’t be able to handle it, I told my boss I just couldn’t cope and left on good terms. Fast forward three months and I was bored out of my skull. I called him up and he took me back part time for four months, even knowing I would leave again when the baby came. I worked until two weeks before my son arrived and was so happy to be at work every day. You’ll never know unless you ask.

  5. EnnVeeEl*

    Awww…This is really unfortunate. I hope everything works out for the OP. Maybe we can see a post in the future on ways you can tell when a prospective employer is blowing smoke. I understand – I’ve had four jobs (two very early in my career) where I knew in the first two weeks I’d made a horrible mistake. I tried to learn from those mistakes and now I’m in a good place.

      1. EnnVeeEl*

        Thanks! Because there is nothing worse than being two weeks in and wanting to cry because you feel you messed up. :-/

        1. Wilton Businessman*

          To be fair, two weeks is barely enough time to figure out where the good coffee maker is.

          1. Jamie*

            Agree. Two weeks is more than long enough to decide if you hate the people/environment…but in those first couple of weeks it isn’t even your job yet…you’re still doing the last person’s job.

            I spent my first month on the job talking myself into returning after lunch and not running away, changing my name, and going into sales where no one would find me.

            It takes time to make a job your own.

            1. Lora*

              I think I spent my first two months in my current job wondering how the hell anyone got anything done, ever, and who sold their soul to Satan to get the Regulatory Agency Of Doom to sign off on this crap.

              I got a new boss one month into the new job, whose method of dealing with it was to shout at me for being so lazy and not getting anything done, plus a bunch of stupid admin-type work he was piling on top of the mess.

              This response prompted SVPs from other departments to step in and manage the workload properly (prioritizing, scoping the work better, short 3-minute verbal updates rather than written reports). I’m glad they stepped in, but from department line management’s perspective, they are basically being told they don’t know how to manage.

            2. ThatGirl*

              My first two weeks at this current position, I went to another interview before work because I was sure I had made a huge mistake leaving my old job.

              Unfortunately, my old job was eliminated so I had no choice but to tough it out until something better came along.

              I hung in there and it started to get better. Now, 10 years later I can’t even imagine working anywhere else. :-)

            3. jesicka309*

              After two weeks in my current job, I had a sudden realisation that my training was done. I was fully trained at my job, and could not expect any further training – from observing my coworkers, and seeing how shocked my managers were at how quickly I’d picked up the job, alarm bells were ringing. Being the young cocky thing I was, I figured it meant I was set for a quick run up the career ladder. What it really meant was that I would be given empty promises until I became disillusioned, and put my head down and did my work with much less enthusiasm.
              2.5 years later, I wish I had acted on my realisation and gotten a new job, instead of telling myself to ‘stick it out and hope it gets better’.

        2. Jazzy Red*

          I knew within 3 days that my boss was a psycho. I tried to make it work because I’d been unemployed so there *was* no “back there”. I left after 3 month and considered it a lesson learned.

  6. None*

    Yes, you can try but like AAM says you’ll have to resign yourself to staying a looooong while. I left an OK paying (but stressful and deadend) job for a new job more in line with my interests and after that new contract finished I was offered my old job but did not want it back at all. Still the old employer persisted and it was so awkward because I wasn’t working anywhere else. Think long and hard and decide whether you can actually overlook the reasons which made you leave your old position.

    Good luck!

  7. ExceptionToTheRule*

    I did this. I was young, broke and had to move “home” to live with my parent because I couldn’t afford to pay rent (or so I thought). Unfortunately, living with the parent was just as, if not more, expensive then my previous circumstances and I’d had to take a job I absolutely hated.

    After 9 months, I approached my old boss and, since he’d never really filled my old job, I was welcomed back. I’ve been in the same place ever since and have been promoted 4 times in 16 years.

  8. Joey*

    I’d be weary. If you left for a reason that reason will likely still be there when you return. In other word you will likely find yourself wanting to leave for the same reasons you left before. There are exceptions, but coming back usually doesn’t work out.

    1. Jamie*

      That’s why it’s different and much easier to go back if you left for reasons unrelated to work. Quit to stay home with kids, needing to provide elder care, moved but moved back.

      But if you left because you wanted more than what you had – whether that’s money or professional satisfaction, whatever – Joey is right. Maybe the new place was worse than the old place, but if the old place was meeting your career needs you probably wouldn’t have left.

      The grass may not have been greener at this new place, but there could be another job with extraordinary lawn care that you wouldn’t be able to pursue because you went back.

      The unknown is scary – and sometimes it sucks and sometimes it’s awesome – but just remember just because something is familiar and comfortable doesn’t mean it’s the best situation.

      I left a job where I was miserable, but seriously considered asking to come back when I saw the temp market was no longer what it was. I didn’t ask and they wouldn’t have taken me – but if I did I’d have stayed where I was unhappy just because it was safe. A month later I got a much better job and typing this almost 5 years later I can’t imagine how awful my life would be if I had gone backwards.

      My experiences don’t apply to others – just saying the OP should make sure she really wants to go back before contacting them. If she’s moving toward her old job because it’s what she now knows she wants that’s awesome…but if it’s just running away from current circumstances to a safe place….maybe think about it before making the leap.

      1. Thomas*

        “The grass may not have been greener at this new place, but there could be another job with extraordinary lawn care that you wouldn’t be able to pursue because you went back.”

        This made me laugh.

  9. Jennifer*

    “Think long and hard and decide whether you can actually overlook the reasons which made you leave your old position. ”

    I am really curious about how the OP came to leave his/her (heretofore referred to as her for ease) job. Was she actively looking (perhaps due to the lack of advancement opportunities mentioned), or were they headhunted or something similar. If OP was dissatisfied enough to be looking, it’s a totally different conversation than if they were “wooed” away, if that makes sense.

  10. LMW*

    I was headhunted out of my publishing job and into the corporate world…it was a 30% pay increase and a chance to increase my skill set and expand my options going forward. And I have to say that it sucked for the first year and a half. Just a terrible adjustment in terms of hours, lack of benefits (despite the improved pay), political nonsense, having a cube instead of an office, less collaboration, having to wait forever for others to return emails, etc. And my old boss (who I’m still friends with and sometimes do freelance work for) actually asked if I’d come back a few months later when a coworker left due to a family situation. And I considered it, but ultimately, the low pay and lack of advancement opportunities (in a hemorrhaging industry) in my previous role were still a significant problem. Plus, I’d been there 7 years, and I didn’t want it to look like it was the only thing I could do. And, unpleasant as the new job was, after a year, I’d have skills that would make me MUCH more marketable. After 15 months, I got a much, much better job in a different division of the same company. And a year after that, I moved to a different company and now have very good pay and love my job! It was totally worth it to see that job as a short-term, unhappy situation that would ultimately lead me to a much better place. Going back would have moved my career backwards significantly.

    So, as several others have said, make sure that your old position is actually the RIGHT next move for you. And, as long as you are stuck in your new role, try to think of how this is just a short-term situation that you can hopefully use to move your career forward to something much better in your next role. It can make suffering through it much better.

    1. Jamie*

      having a cube instead of an office

      I wonder if there is a way to ask about this in the interview stage? I’m not looking now, but I’m curious as to how to handle things like this if indeed they are deal breakers.

      For the non-dealbreaker stuff it’s an easy enough conversation to have but once you’ve been used to your own office and know that’s how you work best it would be a hard adjustment to make.

      In thinking about it I could share an office, if the office mate wasn’t disgusting, but I don’t think I could do open space or a cubicle again unless I had no choice.

      This is why I’ll probably die at the desk I’m sitting at right now…my deal-breakers are money, doors, and an individual bathroom. Even if someone else wanted me they’d get one whiff of my high maintenance needs and send me a lovely rejection letter.

  11. Seal*

    I did this, too. In my case, I left a job I absolutely hated and should have left years before with the intent of pursuing another career entirely. After 9 months away that included a temporary job from hell and swearing I would never do so, I took a different and much better job with the same organization I left, with my former boss’s blessing (he wasn’t the problem at my previous position there). My time away plus working in a new department changed my attitude and career perspective entirely; after 5 years of increasing responsibility and promotions I was able to move into management. I’ve never regretted leaving that organization the first time, but career-wise I’m glad I was able to go back.

  12. MJ*

    Unfortunately, the grass isn’t green on either side. I left a brown old job to get a browner new job and now I have NO job! I can’t wait to ultimately own my own thriving business so that I can have a team who loves me for being a good boss and goes above and beyond for them.

  13. Karen*

    I realize that this is an old article, but trying my luck anyway :) I have a follow-up question to a statement made in the article: “But before you do any of this, there’s one important thing to consider: If you go back to this company, you need to be committed to staying for a good long time.”

    I worked at a small non-profit for nearly five years when I left to go to another non-profit (main reason: pay increase + more challenging work). The old job had small office politics and absolutely no room for advancement. Fortunately, the move didn’t sour the relationship I had with my previous employer and coworkers, as we continued to stay in touch. At the new job, I found myself working an average of 80-90 hour weeks (yes, craziness) and I was dying for an escape. After asking how things were going at my new job (one year into it), my previous employer offered my old job back and agreed to match *almost* the same pay I was receiving at the job I left for. I didn’t think twice about accepting, as I was looking for a quick escape and it was a guaranteed solution.

    Fast forward seven months — I’m miserable. Nothing has changed, despite many conversations surrounding present issues/roadblocks and I am reminded daily why I originally left. Because I do consider my employer a mentor and we have such a great relationship, I am embarrassed at the thought of leaving but am not sure what other options I have. Sadly I’ve realized that despite the greatness in people, some are not meant to be managers and no matter how many conversations are had, some things won’t change.

    Should I suck it up and get through at least another year of miserable days and nights or take my chance at souring my relationship and scoring a job that I actually might enjoy going to?

    1. Katie*

      Karen, may I ask what ended up happening? I’m in a shockingly similar situation to yours at the moment and would love to hear what you decided to do and how it worked out.

  14. Anon1*

    To Karen,

    I guess you should move on. But only when you’ve found a better job, then open up to your co-workers and bosses about it.

    Likewise, i am also deciding if i want to make that call and return to the previous job. While i really like the environment, colleagues and jobscope even, progression wise is not that ideal.

    However, I’m now in a new job and i am more than miserable here. People here sucks and i don’t feel a sense of belonging. Should i quit and return to my old workplace whereby overtime is not required, just a simple ol’ job or should i venture and risk getting a not so gd job again?

  15. shore*

    I miss my old job so much and I waited too long and now my boss has retired. It is something I will always regret
    I quit on good terms for a new job that paid more, but I almost immediatey regretted it but tried to stick it out. you don’t know how good you have it at some jobs until you leave and then sometimes it is too late to go back;(

  16. Bobtown*

    I worked for a company 8 years ago and I left because I was a little unhappy with the manager, because he would not battle for me with the help of paying for my tuition, like he did for another coworker. I had been there for 5 years and hit the top and wanted more and I knew my job well and was told not to ask any more about school or a raise. So on day my supervisor gave me a application for another job, that paid more and was grate. 7 years latter I was laid off and my position was open again. The manager that was there is no longer there, but the supervisor is. Do you think I have a good chance at getting the job back?

  17. Sulta*

    I am in a similar situation. I worked in my last company for 25 years. Went through various mergers. The last merge was an internal one. After four months of new management and changes in my position I thought enough is enough and left to work for a competitor. I am well respected in the industry and left on good terms. After two weeks I am miserable. I can’t sleep, my food is tasteless and my appetite gone, I feel tightness in my chest at all times and can hardly breathe. I think I’ve made a huge mistake. The reasons for leaving no longer seem like valid reasons. Should I ask for my job back?

    1. samantha*

      i am in a similar situation.i just left my job last week only because other colleagues were opting for better job.

      i joined a new office but didnt like the work at all.i hate going and working there.i want to go back my previous office

      can i .will they take me back.

  18. Way2bizzy*

    There are three types of people. Those who lament “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, those who rejoice “You don’t know what you’re missing till you’ve found it”, and those who react to their current situation by vacillating between the two ways of thinking.
    It’s all a matter of perspective.

  19. Ben*

    Am confused and dont know what to do,i letf my formal job just because my pay was just to small.i had an offer from another company so i letf.but just within three months i became worried,the challenges are more than i ever thought of, the triyh of the matter is am in good terms with my boss.mine concern now is what would they think of me if i should go back,will i be given the same treatment as ever?

  20. Krystle*

    I ended up dating one of my co-workers and the manager said that one of us had to leave as it was unprofessional. I was fulltime and the guy at the time was only a casual. I made a stupid decision of being the one to leave and i left without notice. I asked my manager if there would be a chance if i could apply at one of the other stores and she said there may be and that i would just need to email the area manager..What could i say?? Please Help!!

  21. Jasmeet*

    I lost my job as a customer service adviser for Yu (pronounced you) Energy 6 months ago, the reason my manager gave me was that I didn’t have enough experience and it was putting too much pressure on me. Since then I have been out of work, every job I have applied for always gets declined for some reason or another and I just don’t know what to do! :( I am only 20 and that was my first paid job. I have asked my close friend who also works there if I should ask for my job back but she says the department is full and they would all make fun of me. Please someone help me as I don’t know what to do, I am sitting idle at home and I am getting depressed

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