Solicitor Katee Dias explains how HR can support employees returning to work after an extended career break

On International Women’s Day, the chancellor announced a new £5m fund designed to help women return to work after a long break. The initiative will support returnship programmes that provide short-term assignments to returners who are often, but not always, women who have taken time out to raise their children.

Typically lasting around 12 weeks, a returnship will usually offer a proper commercial assignment as the intention is that the individual undertakes real work. These are experienced (often ex-senior) professionals and so are not comparable to those on, say, a work experience or graduate programme. In addition to having actual work, ideally they should also be given training to get them back up to speed with developments that occurred during their absence, as well as refreshing other knowledge and business skills. They should also be offered mentoring to help them integrate confidently and develop their network.

It is recommended that those on returner programmes should be paid at professional levels to reflect their value to the organisation but, at the very least, they must be paid the national minimum wage. Also, there could be potential claims for less favourable treatment as a fixed-term employee if they are not employed on the same basis as permanent employees.

Returnships are becoming more commonplace, especially within large companies in the finance sector. There are a number of advantages from the employer’s point of view. At the end of the returners programme, there will often be possibilities for employment in a permanent role so the returnship can be used a bit like an extended job interview or trial period. Also, many organisations have realised that they are potentially missing out on a huge pool of talent if they do not target these individuals.

Increasingly companies are considering other ways of attracting returners. Many still need some flexibility, so benefits such as agile work practices (eg part-time hours, the ability to work from home and/or autonomy to organise their day around their personal needs) can be important to attract top candidates. A report from the women and work all-party parliamentary group found that 68 per cent of mothers living with children would go back to work in some capacity if flexible working around their childcare was an option. While there is a statutory right to request flexible working arrangements, the employee needs at least 26 weeks continuous service to qualify and there is no guarantee that their request will be approved.

As well as getting internal policies and programmes drawn up, there is likely to be a need for some internal publicity, too. Returners, who may perhaps be older and at a different stage in their life compared to many of their work peers, need to feel welcomed into the organisation. If the employer promotes a culture of presenteeism, flexible working initiatives are likely to fail. While an employer is evaluating the individual, the process works both ways and the individual may not want to stay if it is not the right fit for them and their lifestyle. Top talent can therefore be lost.

Not all returners will be women; men take career breaks too, and so it is important that any policies and programmes that are put into place are open to both sexes. If not, claims of sex discrimination may follow.

Critics of returnships argue that the concept is patronising and takes advantage of the individual’s situation. For the returner, a potential downside is that, while the programme may plug some of the gaps in their CV, if they are not kept on it could lead to awkward questions when applying for other roles.

However, despite these concerns, many see returnships as a positive step. They certainly appear to be gaining in popularity, with many companies now rolling out individualised offerings in the hope of attracting some high-level recruits to give them a competitive advantage.

Katee Dias is a senior solicitor in the employment team at Goodman Derrick