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Own your career break and value yourself were among the key takeaways from this year’s Women Returners conference.
Returners should own their career break rather than hide it, value themselves and understand how employers appreciate their experience both from before and during their break and their ability to provide a business with a fresh perspective.
These were some of the key messages from the Women Returners conference this week. Other takeaways included the importance of returners taking action to build confidence, finding their inner mentor, getting support and acknowledging that the route back in might not be a straight line but a winding path. “Life does not happen in a straight line,” said Julianne Miles, CEO of Women Returners.
She added that returners should focus on the future, instead of looking back. Citing broadcaster Jane Garvey, who gave a keynote speech on the first day, Miles said it is important to be aware that while change can be uncomfortable it is often worth it and, citing Helena Morrissey, founder of the 30% Club, who gave the keynote on day two, she said returners should “think big, start small, but start now”.
One panel on the last day of the conference, chaired by lawyer Melissa Janvier, heard advice from a range of employers about how to succeed as a returner candidate.
When it comes to applications, Tace Heuston, Head of Talent Management at JP Morgan, said the company is interested to know what a returner has done before, including during their career break. “It’s important to own that,” said Heuston, adding that they also want to know about a returner’s strengths and skillset and about what they want to do in the future. “It helps us to know what roles might fit you,” she added, saying that JP Morgan offers an orientation session at the start of the programme to build confidence.
Helena Fernandes, Director – Head of EMEA Campus Recruitment and Internal Mobility and Diversity Recruitment at Credit Suisse, agreed that employers want to understand what drives returners applying to the company. She warned, however, against going into too much detail about a break if it was not relevant and not to use acronyms that might not be understood by recruiters.
Asked how returners can stand out, Brett Hemmerling, EMEA Campus Recruiting Manager and Global RE-IGNITE Programme Manager, said it is important for returners to make the most of networking opportunities and support in the form of buddies and mentors [alumni from the returner programme]. They shouldn’t apply for roles in a scattergun way, but ensure that the roles they apply to have a certain logic to them and align with the returners’ goals.
Fernandes added that returners should reach out to alumni and others in their cohort if they need help. Sharing knowledge and supporting each other is a vital part of returner schemes. Sarah Mavius, Head of Returners at FDM Group, added that returners should not feel worried about asking for help if they are facing particular challenges at home.
The panel were asked when returners should bring up flexible working. Mavius said returners are encouraged to be upfront about flexible working, although Heuston advised that it is best to get a foot in the door first and to negotiate this with managers. Most organisations are very open to flexible working now after 18 months of the pandemic. She added that it is important to be clear about what kind of flexibility you want before you start the discussion.
When it comes to preparing for interviews, Heuston said hiring managers are aware that returners may be out of practice and try to make it as least scary as possible. She advised drawing up a list of questions and answers and practising in front of a mirror or with friends. Fernandes, meanwhile, is looking for team players, enthusiasm and a willingness to contribute. Mavius said people who are proactive and ask questions during the programme stand out. Mavius said the interview is more like a conversation at FDM Group and looks to dig into returners’ soft skills and experience. The important thing, she said, is to believe in yourself and ask questions if you are not sure about something.
Another panel on the last day of the conference, chaired by Sarah Jackson, former director of Working Families, addressed employers’ rationale for taking on returners.
Claire Ladwa, UK HR Director of insurance firm Convex, said the company had run their first returner programme in 2021. The business area it was held in were so impressed they hired about returner directly and are about to run the programme with a second cohort, partnering with Women Returners. Ladwa said the company was a young one and ‘legacy free’ so it could create its own inclusive culture from scratch.
Sona Wintle, Head of Financial Crime Operations at Fidelity International, said the firm runs its own in-house returner programme and also takes part in a cross-company programme with Women Returners in partnership with the Diversity Project. She said the cross-company programme allowed them to collaborate with others and create a peer group cohort beyond Fidelity. Their returner work is scaling globally – they have two programmes in Europe and one in Asia. “There is a lot of interest from colleagues across the globe,” said Wintle.
Jo Nisbett, HR Director at law firm DAC Beachcroft, also runs its own returner programme which aims to give lawyers coaching support and time and space to get up to speed on any changes which have occurred during someone’s career break.
Brain Stanislas, Product Manager at the Cabinet Office and Co-Chair of the cross-governmental Flexible Working Network, said the Civil Service doesn’t have a formal returner programme, although it launched a pilot in 2019 and different divisions work with returner programmes such as STEM returner initiatives. It welcomes returners, however, and aims to make the application process as accessible as possible. Stanislas advised people going to the organisation’s jobs portal page and clicking on the ‘show more’ button would allow them to widen their research criteria and choose different flexible working patterns. The Civil Service’s careers website also has a new career matcher feature which enables people to enter their skills and receive suggestions of possible career pathways. The jobs page also has profiles and practical advice on applying for jobs and the Civil Service’s apprenticeship scheme is also open to everyone if they want to switch careers and retrain.
The Bank of England has an established returner programme. In 2018 it took on 15 people and 14 have been hired permanently. This year it has taken on 42 returners. The majority are likely to be hired permanently. Antonia Brown, Head of Talent Acquisition and Development, said a wider range of hiring managers now see the value of returners. “Attitudes have shifted,” she stated. “Some people thought it was a risk in 2018. The main thing that caused that shift is that they have had such good people coming in. Returners are their own best advocates.”