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8 Steps to Starting a Return to Work Program at Your Company


Taking an extended hiatus from the  workplace–once considered a career-ending move–has become more of a viable option in recent years as employers recognize the attributes of professionals returning to work after a career break and embrace the value of return to work programs.

In 2008, companies including Goldman Sachs and Sara Lee launched the “returnship,” built around the premise that any perceived hiring risk posed by the career break could be mitigated using a “try-out” structure similar to college internships.

Return to work programs have evolved over the years. The early returnship model was project-based, with conversion to a permanent role upon completion of the program more of a possibility than an expectation.

While still not guaranteeing a job at the end, many of today’s employer returnships take an “intent to hire” approach, in which participants are recruited and integrated into work teams assuming they will convert to permanent hires. A handful of employers with high conversion rates in their own returnship programs did away with the internship altogether and hired the return to work program participants as employees at the outset. This is called the “direct hire” model.

What successful programs have in common

In her recently released Harvard Business Review article, “Return to Work Programs Come of Age,” iRelaunch CEO and co-founder Carol Fishman Cohen, who has worked in this area for nearly 20 years, provides 8 key steps for employers interested in launching a return to work program.

She emphasizes several key elements that successful programs have in common, including customized programming sessions and mentoring for the participants, and training for the recruiters, managers, and others interacting with the returning professionals to support them as they transition back into the workplace.

“Program orientation sessions cover topics such as goal setting, technology challenges, dealing with ‘imposter syndrome,’ and how to network inside the organization,” writes Cohen. Most programs also use cohorts, so participants move through this significant personal and professional life transition as a group; a powerful and bonding experience.

With the pool of returning professionals larger than ever since the pandemic–Cohen notes that according to research by ManpowerGroup, “57% of male and 74% of female Millennials anticipate taking a career break for childcare, eldercare, or to support a partner in a job–a much higher rate than was true for prior generations”–companies that have return to work programs in place are in the best position to hire  these high caliber professionals when they are ready to return

8 key steps to launch a return to work program

Here are 8 key steps for employers interested in launching a return to work program from Fishman Cohen:

1. Identify an executive champion: It is imperative to have a strong voice at the senior level advocating for the return to work program.

2. Designate a program manager: Someone must “own” the program internally and serve as the crucial hub for every aspect of the program as it develops and launches.

3. Banish the word “intern”: Avoid using this label with experienced, mid-career professionals, as it can feel demeaning and send confusing signals to managers, teams and other internal stakeholders.

4. Use cohorts: Relaunchers consistently report that their cohort was one of the most impactful features of their return to work programs.

5. Name the program and set up a dedicated landing page for it: This makes the program “official” and a focal point around which to rally.

6. Use the program to engage with company alumni: Ask managers to identify former employees who left to go on career break and use the return to work program to reconnect and re-hire them.

7. Encourage employee referrals: Announcing a return to work program can be powerful signaling to employees past and present. Current employees often know someone who could be eligible. An employer’s own alumni could be candidates or have someone to recommend. Current employees contemplating a career break appreciate their employer’s commitment to bringing back professionals if they decide to leave.

8. Highlight success stories: Relaunchers inside an organization who took a career break in the past can be particularly valuable in dispelling myths about hiring those returning from career break. They can also be mentors for new relaunchers coming on board or advisers on features of the program.

Managers with a personal connection to a relauncher may step up to be involved in the pilot, as may employees who relaunched years before there was a program. They recognize the merits of this hidden talent pool and know how much value relauchers can contribute to an organization. They are proud their employer offers a return to work program and eager to pave the way for more relaunchers to come.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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