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Supporting career break returners

Investing in these candidates, with their known skills and capabilities, can pay dividends

Late last year the Government Equalities Office launched career break returner programmes – schemes designed to help employers support people back into the workplace following substantial time off. The initiatives address ongoing concerns that organisations are failing to put the necessary structures in place to effectively re-integrate individuals after a career break.

Returners might have taken time out for childcare, study, travel or military service, or they may have even previously retired. According to newly-published research by Ageing & Society around 25% of retirees now return to work, with about half doing so within five years of retirement.

So what should employers be doing to encourage and support career break returners? What mechanisms can they put in place to ensure they reach their full potential?

Tailoring programmes

There are many tools employers can use to support and retain returners. Flexible and agile working practices are a great place to start. Parents or carers often need greater flexibility built into their contracts; at least in the short term. Granting permission to work from home, or altering start and finish times on set days can make a huge difference. This can be ongoing or for an initial transition period, depending on the role.

Establishing employee support systems or networking sessions can also help. It is important for returners to build relationships with colleagues as quickly as possible, and to find co-workers who might be in a similar situation. This can be especially valuable where the employee is returning to work after a particularly unique experience – such as military service.

Training is another important element in the ‘return to work’ process. Returners need to be given the resources necessary to get up to speed quickly, to ensure they can perform to the best of their ability. Talking to returners about where there might be gaps in their know-how and running tailored upskill sessions is critical.

These tools are particularly important when it comes to senior leadership roles. The challenges these career break returners face are often amplified higher up an organisation, so specialised and tailored support is important. Ensuring any board-level returner has the chance to build up a support network and upskill quickly is crucial. Addressing the issue of female representation and diversity on boards generally means that this is particularly pressing, especially considering the requirement to report gender pay gaps.

Organisations need the structures in place to support women returning from maternity leave or childcare. The right culture needs to be instilled from the top. Promoting awareness of the value women bring as well as the barriers they face delivers positive outcomes.

Interim positions

Taking up interim positions can be a useful strategy for transitioning back into the workforce. The roles provide a chance for more senior professionals to ‘test the waters’ and see how employment fits in with their lifestyle and skillset following a break.

Interim positions can often be timed around other commitments – some parents opt to align roles with school terms, for example. There also tends to be more scope to negotiate flexible or agile working agreements than in permanent roles, such as four-day working weeks.

There are also benefits for employers. The recruitment process for interims is usually very quick and inexpensive, meaning valuable time and resources are not wasted. Hires can be made to meet short-term business objectives or support particular projects to both parties’ benefit.

Final thoughts

If organisations are to attract and retain the best talent they need to assist and accommodate those looking to re-enter the workforce after a break. Often these people bring valuable experience and fresh perspectives, and excluding them from selection processes could mean missing out on the best candidates. However, organisations need to think carefully about how they can ensure a smooth transition, and invest the resources necessary to make the return to work process a success.

Catherine Kift is a partner at GatenbySanderson