Barriers to re-entry: a diversity and inclusion challenge

Blog posts

8 Mar 2019

Catherine Hogan

Catherine Hogan, Research Fellow

This International Women’s Day, there are more women in work than ever before.  This is an achievement that we should rightly celebrate.  But before we get too carried away, we should also reflect on those areas where we still have more work to do.  I would argue that with employment so high and unemployment at its lowest in forty years, this is a great opportunity for employers and government to do more to make the most of all of our talents.  And there is no more pressing opportunity than in supporting women who are returning to work.

As Dan Lucy set out on these pages in January, the onus is now firmly on employers to be more creative as they compete for great candidates. CIPD research shows that social and organisational skills are most in demand, rather than specific qualifications. Mature workers with their lived experience provide a rich source of such skills, but can be more difficult to access, attract or evaluate, particularly when returning after a career break. The decision to leave work, even for a while, is rarely straightforward and often made for altruistic reasons, to do with care of others or even oneself. It follows that a high proportion of people returning to work after a break are women and/or older.

Given current diversity challenges such as gender pay disparity, an ageing workforce and representation of women in senior roles, employers must find ways to facilitate return into interesting, challenging and suitably senior roles that recognise experience. At least they should not create barriers to return in forms such as binary recruitment approaches, requiring excessive justification of CV gaps, inflexible offerings (in terms of role and working conditions), and lower pay that does not reflect previous experience.

An atypical CV can challenge recruiters and demand more of their time and engagement. Unfamiliarity or expedience may deter them from taking the time to listen to a candidate’s (sometimes long) story and think creatively about whether it might translate into a compelling proposition for the organisation. It’s often easier to stick with tried and tested, familiar criteria, particularly at a time when tools like ‘intelligent screening software’ are being lauded for their efficiency. But the outcome is not necessarily optimal for an organisation’s talent pool.

Digging deeper does take time but can uncover rich information; who has this person been, what journey have they taken, what have they learned along the way, what’s important to them now, and what can they offer? A ‘whole person’ approach calls for deeper engagement, more creative thought, good judgement and an appreciation of nuance. This can present challenges, but also reap benefits.

Benefits to employers

Strengths such as commitment, client focus, multitasking, and problem solving are unlikely to change dramatically over time. New skills and updated knowledge are easier to brush up on, once in a job. But a tendency to put your whole self into whatever you commit to, is a valuable trait that is likely to remain stable; commitment at home and work can and do co-exist!

A mature candidate has travelled (not necessarily literally although perhaps that too) and may not want to return to the workforce in exactly the same guise as before. Return to Work programmes are popular and can be a great re-entry route after a break but may not allow for the ‘prodigal’ having been transformed by the years in the ‘wilderness’ (or wherever). People evolve and priorities change; a returner may not want to brush up on old skills and stay on the same career path as before. This can be an opportunity to reengage differently, for example in a new role or with more flexible working arrangements (as explained by Rosie Gloster here).

Employers who acknowledge this upfront can offer returners a more attractive proposition; a grown-up conversation goes a long way to help improve the fit between candidates and the organisation. Mismatched expectations can lead to problems and higher turnover whereas well-matched returners may stay longer, if they enjoy the work and feel valued (as our research on older workers in particular has found).

Employers could capitalise upon returners’ loss of confidence after a career break, to hire highly skilled and experienced people into less senior, lower paid roles. But how ethical is this? If people are forced to take a step backwards on return to the workforce, it must contribute greatly to lack of female representation at executive and board level, as well as unequal pay rates – as we have argued before. If we are serious about righting the imbalance, companies must commit to recruiting experienced senior women returners into suitably senior, well paid roles and paying them on a par with male counterparts who have not chosen (or perhaps needed) to take time out.

Government launched a career break returner programme in 2017 which recognised linkages to diversity and inclusion. But there is much more to be done across a broader constituency, if we are to see real progress. Employer support for different life and parenting choices without penalties could help to improve workplace diversity and inclusion and perhaps lead to higher take up of offerings like shared parental leave, where our evaluation explained the reasons for low take up, and the opportunities to improve practice. Society at large could reap benefits over time.

Such open mindedness by employers could equally appeal more broadly; for example to younger, more mobile, workers in their early career stages. Their focus is often on building a portfolio of skills and experience, perhaps interspersed with periods of travel and further education. They place high importance too on the values and ethics of their employing organisation, a backlash of sorts against the prevalence of high profile corporate bad news stories over recent years and decades.

In summary employers can gain a strong competitive advantage when they seek to understand and accept workers’ priorities over the course of the employment relationship, and value their cross cutting skills and potential. This can extend well beyond the life of an employment contract, starting early with attraction and recruitment and continuing with proactive management of relationships with leavers (aka potential returners) to understand their reasons and keep the door to re-entry open. Such an investment of time and resource could pay dividends for employers, and perhaps help to improve the world of work for all.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.