There are plenty of articles and guides out there encouraging women to get back into the workplace after taking a career break. There’s less information on how HR and Talent Acquisition leaders can set up Returners Programmes (or “Returnships”) themselves.

Returners Programmes are paid internships of up to 12 weeks that help experienced individuals transition back into the workplace after a career break, and they’re something I’m very passionate about. Firstly, and quite selfishly, simply because I’ve benefited from a talented returner joining our leadership team, and secondly because I’m hugely proud of the real-world success story we have to share from one of our clients – an excellent example of what “good” looks like for a Returners programme. We have worked in collaboration with O2 from programme launch and have managed the end to end recruitment for Returners Programmes both in 2016 and 2017 from attraction, screening and assessment through to off-boarding. The programme continues to go from strength to strength, with 2017 applications increasing by 240% over 2016, and 100% attendance at our assessment days for two years running. We have hired 20 returners across the last two years, increasing numbers in 2016 and 2017 from initial requirements due to the high quality of the people we brought into the programme – a fantastic achievement.

So, should your organisation set up a Returners Programme? I think the reasons for doing so are pretty convincing:

Narrow the skills gap: Skills shortages are growing and, when looking at more senior hires, returners could help fill that gap. At O2, the speed with which a large proportion of returners have swiftly transitioned into high-level roles and subsequently been promoted has been incredible, but not a surprise given the quality of the people we selected for the Returnships.

The bottom line: Guess what? It helps the bottom line! For every 10% increase in gender diversity in the senior executive team, there is a 3.5% increase in financial performance, according to research by McKinsey. Bringing senior women into the organisation could also help you redress the gender pay gap.
Reputation: With diversity, skills shortages and the gender pay gap firmly in the media spotlight, the opportunities for positive coverage to enhance both your organisation’s employer brand and your own personal reputation are high.

Despite these impactful programmes not being as common as they should be, they needn’t be difficult to set up. So how do you go about creating one?

1. Understand your workforce plan first: This is perhaps the hardest part – most organisations struggle with workforce planning. Try to identify the skills your organisation needs now and for the future by understanding the long-term business goals, the associated organisational design and the individual roles required within that design – then cross reference with your current population and succession plans. All of these questions will help you plan where returners could best fit into your organisation.

2. Build a business case: Once you know where returners will bring benefits, you will need to create executive summaries of the business case and put the case across effectively - being clear about the dependencies for success. There are plenty of organisations out there that will be happy to help with creating a business case and action plan.

3. Find a non-HR sponsor: Securing buy-in from other parts of the business is crucial to the success of the programmes and they will be galvanised by a C-level non-HR sponsor making this personal. Can the success of the programme form part of their bonus qualification criteria or monthly board reports? Pinpoint who in the organisation you would need to work with in order to get this project off the ground (it may be that L&D plays a large role, and of course you will also need buy-in from those departments you will be recruiting returners into) and use your C-Level sponsor to keep the spotlight on the programme throughout the year.

4. Rely on the right partners: Very few organisations design and run talent schemes end-to-end themselves. This process is different to business-as-usual experienced hiring and, although probably more akin to Graduate Programmes, Returner Programmes require unique planning and management. Technology plays its part in the process. The good news is that there are partners and platforms out there that can make things easier than you ever imagined!

5. Assess & Screen to get the right people: This may sound simple enough, but with the people you will be interviewing having been out of the workplace for potentially a long period of time, the assessment process needs to be relevant and comfortable for the candidate. Strengths-based and situational judgement assessments are more powerful here than traditional CV-based interview techniques. The process must ensure that the candidate thoroughly understands the shape of the Returnship on offer, the role and the organisation so that they can make an informed decision.

6. Never underestimate the importance of candidate experience: Candidates should always be treated like the customers they may already be or could become. Give them a fantastic experience throughout. This means a lot of communication with a real person!

My challenge to you is to join the great roll call of people who are leading the way in addressing the skills and diversity challenges of their organisations. If your company is capable of running Graduate or Apprentice Programmes, then you can do the same for returners.

What’s stopping you? Launch a Returners Programme!


Post contributed by Paula Parfitt, Senior Vice President of Cielo. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter.