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Why a returnship programme could boost diversity in your business

By Yvonne Smyth, Head of Diversity, Hays

For a wide variety of reasons, workers are increasingly taking time out from their career. ‘Returnship’ programmes can help organisations effectively and efficiently bring them back. In the latest Hays Journal, we explore what you need to consider before putting such programmes in place.

There’s no let-up in the war for talent and skills. Availability of key skills, in particular, is a matter that continues to disturb CEOs’ sleep. And then there’s renewed anxiety around economic growth, not to mention the pressure to build diverse workforces that can outpace the competition.

This is forcing employers to eye up parts of the labour market that may be being squandered – a pool of candidates already trained, qualified, and highly experienced. Who are they? Workers who have stepped out of their careers for all manner of reasons, including taking a sabbatical, taking time out to care for a loved one, raising a family or because they have had to deal with long-term sickness.

Hence the surge in ‘returnship’ programmes, a relatively new tool in the hiring strategies of organisations, aimed at encouraging those on a career break to dip their toes into the world of work again. They are growing in popularity because they benefit both the ‘returnee’ keen to restart their career in a supported and phased way, and the organisation, which can tap into much-needed new talent without having to train up a new person from scratch.

Why interest in returnship schemes is growing

There are now more than 90 returnship schemes globally, with activity based mainly in the US, UK and India, according to iRelaunch, a US-based consultancy for employers and returners. Examples of large firms adopting this approach include PayPal, Willmott Dixon, Target, Microsoft, Unilever, IBM, Vodafone and Dell.

And it’s likely that they will continue to mushroom, particularly as life expectancy increases. The concept of the 100-year life, which we explored in the last issue of the Hays Journal, will see many people dip in and out of employment for a wide range of reasons, requiring employers to be flexible enough to support them.

As they currently stand, returnships are mainly aimed at professionals who have been out of the labour market for, typically, upwards of two years. Although each is run slightly differently, they usually comprise formal paid placements that may or may not (there’s no guarantee) lead to a permanent offer being made to the individual. A key characteristic differentiating them from other kinds of placement is the amount of support provided to ease the transition back into work. This can include buddying schemes, training, coaching or mentorships.

And while most returnships are usually open to both men and women, undoubtedly it’s mainly women being hired to the programmes – hardly surprising given that it’s women who are most likely to take a career break to have children or be a carer. For example, figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics published in February 2018 showed that 1.9 million UK women and 240,000 men were not in paid employment because they were looking after family and home.

How returnship schemes can improve diversity

Dr Jo Ingold, Associate Professor of Human Resource Management and Public Policy at Leeds University Business School, says that more and more employers are investing in returnships, driven by the need to attract and retain talent and address skills shortages, as well as to further the diversity agenda.

“Businesses have found value in building a more diverse workforce because they want to reflect their customer base or because it has a positive impact on the bottom line,” she says. “Returnship programmes can be one way of creating opportunities to be more diverse; for example, by getting more women into senior roles.”

There are myriad benefits for both the employer and individual from such schemes, she explains. “Returners often feel valued as a result of the investment that has been put into their career. Evidence shows that this, in turn, makes them more productive and engaged. It can also mean that they speak highly of their organisation, which reinforces a positive business culture and reflects well on the employer.”

Returnships help employees reach their potential

The prime advantage for the returner is, of course, the chance to relaunch their career and work in a job that properly utilises their skills and experience – something that remains unattainable for the majority of those coming back after a career break. These programmes often allow them to return in a supported part-time or flexible role before taking on a full-time position later.

Research published by PwC in 2016 highlighted that two thirds of returning professional women actually work beneath their potential. This is down to a combination of factors, says the study, ‘Women returners’, the £1 billion career break penalty for professional women. These include a lack of flexible and part-time roles in higher-skilled jobs, but also biases in the recruitment process; managers can be instantly put off by CV gaps, assuming that a candidate no longer has the relevant skills.

A programme called Career by Choice (CBC) run by Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) in India has recruited more than 80 returners since it began in 2011, across roles or projects in marketing, HR, finance, IT and more. It is seen as a valuable opportunity to access an untapped source of talent – qualified and ambitious women currently on a career break (although it is now open to both men and women) – and is helping to build a potential talent pipeline for full-time managerial roles in the company, says a spokesperson; who adds that the programme has proved rewarding: “It has become the go-to programme for business leaders seeking out highly capable and flexible talent in their teams. CBC consultants are highly sought after for part-time or full-time roles in the company at the end of their projects.”

Knowing when to invest in a returnship scheme

Given the effort, time and resources being ploughed into returnship programmes, realistically their cost is going to be high. So there is a real risk for organisations that are considering going down this path that the outlay could be substantial, but that retention rates will fail to meet expectations.

“It’s problematic if companies think they can pin all their hopes on a scheme such as this,” says Ingold. “There has to be a lot of effort put into making a scheme work.”

First and foremost, she advises that returnship programmes shouldn’t be treated as a ‘bolt-on’ initiative, but should be part of a consistent and embedded approach to promoting diversity and inclusion.

“A returnship programme won’t work if a business’s wider polices around recruitment and selection or job design, for example, aren’t geared towards diversity,” she says. “It’s about having the right mindset and it has to be supported with the right organisational infrastructure and policies.

“We know that managers can be reluctant to hire people who have taken career breaks. The assumption can be that they are no longer work-ready, while previous experience is ignored or questions aren’t asked about the skills they may have acquired while not in paid work.

“So managers need to be properly trained and empowered to root out bias, as well as being fully on board with a scheme such as this, to prevent it stalling.”

Why a flexible approach to returnships is needed

Sarah Churchman is UK Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing at PwC, which introduced its Back to Business returnship programme around three years ago. She agrees that employers shouldn’t go down this route thinking it’s an easy option.

“People returning to the world of work are very diverse,” she says. “They have all got different career histories – some of them have been away from work for two years, others for up to 10 years – and personal lives. It’s difficult to develop a one-size-fits-all programme. We learned early on that it’s important for the scheme to be flexible, so you can really meet the needs of the individual who joins you.”

PwC found that it had to adjust the length of its placements, for example, quickly discovering that it had made them too short.

“Originally we set it as eight to 12 weeks, but it’s now 16 weeks, as there was too much to fit in,” Churchman says. She also notes that PwC has had to be responsive to returners’ needs around working patterns or hours. “We realised that returners don’t necessarily want to return to work full-time or on a permanent basis, which had been our original intention. Now we plan to bring them back into the business and upskill and deploy them when they want to work and when we need them. It’s like a corporate version of the gig economy and it keeps us relevant and attractive to talent professionals.”

Supporting workers returning to work

The support offered during the placement is also critical to help reintegrate returners back into the workplace. In this respect, Helena Fernandes of Credit Suisse advises not to overlook the power of the group itself. “The level of support a cohort will provide for each other is immense. That’s invaluable when they are facing challenges or a dip in their enthusiasm. Organisations should help to encourage that bond.”

HUL also advises that, while a returnship programme should be properly structured throughout – from identifying projects to recruitment, compensation and development of the cohort – actively engaging the group is essential: “Ensuring their inclusion in important events, training and celebrations is important for them to get a sense of belonging.”

Churchman admits the numbers being recruited to the Back to Business programme (around 12 a year) remain small. “It’s something we are keen to grow,” she says. “However, it’s such a valuable channel for attracting talent. Individuals we have recruited on the back of it have really wowed us. Their experience means we are learning from them, so we benefit hugely. We would have missed out on that talent were it not for the programme.”

HUL concludes by reflecting that while its programme certainly offers something for the individuals that take part in it, it is really the company that benefits: “For returners, it offers an excellent platform to work on live projects and enhance their skills while maintaining flexibility around work,” it says. “However, the ultimate return for the organisation is the passion shown by returners who invest all their energy into opportunities they are given.”

To discover further insights into how automation is impacting jobs and the steps you can take to prepare, request your copy of the Hays What Workers Want Report 2019.

About this author

Yvonne is Head of Diversity at Hays, working with our clients to ensure their recruitment strategies are aligned with the latest equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) policies and initiatives. She is responsible for creating and implementing diverse recruitment strategies that effectively support the representation of more diverse staff profiles within their business.

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