Employers once considered a gap in employment as justification for tossing a résumé on the rejection heap. Workers deciding to leave promising careers were thought to lack drive. Plus, while they were on a break, the workplace was changing, leaving them out of the loop and behind the times. But a growing number of employers are changing their thinking. Many are now taking a close look at résumés with gaps, and they’re seeing the strengths employees motivated to return to work bring with them.
Carol Fishman Cohen, cofounder and CEO of iRelaunch, is one who is on a mission to help employers understand the upside of hiring workers ready to relaunch their careers. “With more media attention on career reentry, more academic studies, more human resources conferences with sessions on career reentry initiatives, and more documented cases of individuals returning to work after a career break, the career path including a career break is becoming more normalized,” Cohen says.
A number of companies have implemented internship programs aimed at attracting returning workers. Goldman Sachs was an early adopter of such programs. Its trademarked “Goldman Sachs Returnship Program” began in 2008 and is designed for those who have been out of the workforce for at least two years.
But not all returners are able to take advantage of special internship programs. They just have to compete with the rest of the applicant pool and they may find the deck stacked against them. Since employers often use automated online systems to post openings and vet applications, the applicant tracking software may be designed to detect gaps in employment and eliminate those applications.
But returning workers don’t have to let the software win, Cohen says. “Returners usually have to submit an online application as part of getting the process in motion, in order to be ‘officially in the system,’” she says. “However the real connections take place completely outside of this online application process.”
Cohen says returners must seek out people in the organization or people who know people in the organization in order to get their résumé walked over to the hiring manager and literally put on top of the pile.
“Employers tell us over and over again that the personal referral is what gets individual résumé the attention they need to turn into a conversation, which can ultimately lead to a job opportunity,” Cohen says. “Applying online in a vacuum, with no other efforts to connect with the company, is rarely successful for the returner or even for people who have not taken career breaks.”
Employers also face obstacles when hiring returners. Someone who has been out of the workplace for years may not be familiar with the latest technology or knowledgeable about current market conditions. An employer who needs someone to hit the ground running may not want to take a chance on a returner.
Cohen says employers should not be expected to lower their standards, and the onus should be on the returner to get up to speed. Aspiring returners have many resources, particularly in the technology arena, she says. For example, brick and mortar Microsoft stores often offer classes on the Microsoft Office suite. Plus various adult learner community education and online courses are available.
Employers also may be leery of hiring returners who seek a job lower on the career ladder than the positions they once held. The thought of hiring an “overqualified” applicant scares some employers off, but Cohen advises jobseekers to be up front about why they’re applying for lower compensated jobs. A position with lower pay but more flexibility may be just what the returner needs.
Employers interested in designing a program to attract returning employees need to consider legal risks. Kimberly Klimczuk, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. in Springfield, Massachusetts, says employers need to be on guard against discrimination and pay issues.
Employers may see programs for returning workers as a way to boost diversity since such programs are likely to attract older and female workers. But employers need to be careful since a program that may or may not lead to permanent employment “may be seen as another way that women are being exploited in the workplace,” particularly if the position pays less than a comparable long-term position, Klimczuk says.
“With respect to the pay disparity issue, while an employer may be able to justify an initial lower starting salary for an employee who lacks certain skills or requires additional training due to being absent from the workforce, once the employee has acquired the skills/training, employers should bring the employee’s salary to the same level as other comparable employees with that same skill set and training,” Klimczuk says.
Also, employers sometimes think that if they hire someone on a temporary basis, they’re not at risk for claims of discrimination if they terminate the relationship at the end of that time frame, Klimczuk says. “But of course that’s not the case,” she says. If an employer has a long-term position available and declines to place an employee from a returning worker program in that position, there’s still a possibility that the employer would be exposed to claims of discrimination for choosing another candidate over the candidate in the returning worker program.
Criticism of returning programs
Not everyone is enthusiastic about employer programs to attract returning workers. Some point out that returning worker programs might enable employers to take advantage of a lack of confidence a returner might feel. Cohen doesn’t see it that way.
“I think reentry internship programs are a perfect offering for relaunchers and help them overcome any confidence deficits,” Cohen says. “First of all, they are paid. Secondly, they can lead to a full-time job. The rates of moving from an intern to permanent employee, depending on the program and the year, range from 50 percent to 90 percent. Third, they are competitive, so getting accepted to and participating in a formal reentry internship program is a resume-worthy experience in itself, regardless of whether you end up with a permanent role afterward.”
Cohen says reentry internships allow returning workers “to make a big leap” in terms of updating experience and adjusting to full-time work. She says she stays in touch with internship participants who didn’t get job offers but went on to relaunch their careers. “The reentry internship is offered as a professional development experience even if it does not lead to a permanent role,” she says.
Cohen offers tips for employers interested in rehiring people they consider “regrettable losses”—those employees who leave the employer but who may want to reenter the workforce later.
- Use exit interviews to establish a way to stay in contact with those employees.
- Assign an alumni relationship contact to a worker taking a break.
- Make continuing education resources available to workers on a break.
- Create an on-call paid alumni consulting pool to cover parental and other leaves, special projects, and other work opportunities.
- Invite former employees on career breaks to attend any corporate events held for alumni. If they get a direct invitation from the employer, they may feel more comfortable attending.