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Renewing careers
Corporates are employing women professionals looking to rejoin the workforce after a sabbatical

Bhavik Nair

Ruma Rao already had more than eight years of experience in the outsourcing industry before the beginning of the financial crisis. She was taking care of pre-sales in her organisation and handled transition of programmes to India from their clients. “My role initially required a lot of travel. Once my daughter was born, I moved into a pre-sales role which required less travel.” However, despite moving to a different role, the travel did not really come down to levels she could reasonably manage. Work hours too were extended. “It was too much to handle. My daughter was two-and-a-half years old. And I didn’t see myself in pre-sales in the long-run anyway. I just decided to call it quits,” Rao says. That was January 2008, just before the financial crisis. Rao quit work and took a break for a year and a half. By the time she was thinking of making a comeback, the financial crisis had unfolded. 

She started applying for work, and in the process heard about the Tata Second Career Internship Programme for Women (TCSIP). TSCIP is a career re-entry programme for women who had taken a break from work. “It was the second year of the TSCIP and they were advertising. I applied in mid-2009 and by October I had started working under the programme,” says Rao.

NS Rajan ,group chief human resources officer, Tata Sons

TSCIP is one of the earliest re-entry programmes in the country aimed at bringing back the talent pool of working women who opted out of workforce and wanted to come back. Under the programme, Tata group companies provide live business projects with approximately 500 hours of engagement and this is spread over a period of six months. 

“Even today we have an active database with almost 7,500 TSCIP applications of women who are willing to work. More than 600 interns have joined us in over 1,000 projects since the inception of the programme and about 100 of them have joined as full-time employees so far,” says NS Rajan, group chief human resources officer at Tata Sons.

Over the last few years, a number of other organisations have started to commence such initiatives. For some, the idea came in from the harrowing experiences of their own employees who found it hard to make a comeback post a career break.

In the summer of 2015, Vijay Anand was having coffee with one of his female employees who had just completed a year in his organisation. Anand is the senior vice-president and managing director at Intuit India’s Development Center in Bangalore. The firm is the Indian arm of Intuit Inc that provides business and financial management solutions for small and mid-sized businesses.

The coffee meeting was one of those he often held with employees who had crossed service milestones — when employees finish a year, three or five in the organisation. These conversations often included the special moments in life which remain unforgettable.

That summer day, the female employee started narrating the ordeals she went through while looking for a job post her career break. Appointments were hard to schedule, recruiters showed lack of interest and most of all the confidence level had started to dwindle, the employee told Anand.

Somewhere down the line, Intuit had given her a chance and she had survived. One year down the line she was having coffee with the leadership. “At one point during the conversation she broke down,” says Anand. That seemed to be the trigger point for him and he started exploring the idea of initiating a programme exclusively for women wanting to come back to work.

In June 2015, the firm commenced a programme called Intuit Again with a first batch of 11 returnees. Of the 11, five have converted to full time employees. The firm has already commenced its second batch and is looking forward to a better conversion rate this time.

A few other good examples are Back on Target by Target India, Reconnect by Axis Bank, Encore by Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail and Goldman Sachs Returnship by Goldman Sachs. 

This trend is a testimony to the fact that firms are beginning to realise the untapped potential of the vast pool of talent that remains dormant and unemployed because to return, after a career break, is far from easy. This pool consists of returning mothers, wives who moved to different cities following their spouses, daughters who had to quit work to take care of parents or those who simply took a sabbatical.

Comeback blues
A decade earlier, a break of two or more years only meant one got virtually unemployable.  That seems to be changing — albeit, a tad slowly — with several corporate programmes. However, challenges seem to be numerous in making these programmes truly work both for the employer and the hires. Ranging from the self-confidence of returnees and the hiring managers’ mindset to operating costs, low conversion rates of interns to full time employees, and even the receptiveness of colleagues, it’s not an easy path to tread for organisations that are treading in this direction.

Despite a high level of desire to come back to work, women often lack self-confidence when they begin a second time. The first challenge in many cases thus is to make the returnees believe they can match pace with others. Someone returning to work after a gap of two years may not find it easy to cope with the flow of their team members. Technology gets obsolete by the day and when the break happens to be of a few years, skill redundancy becomes a prominent cause of concern. Moreover, you have your manager to impress and teammates are watching your performance — the pressure might get overwhelming. That’s why the success of these programmes hinge on having a proper mentorship and handholding. That coupled with a little bit of flexibility in the initial period, re-ignites their confidence. 

It is noteworthy that a considerable proportion of such returning work force consists of mothers with small kids. For such employees, the kid’s nurturing becomes even more important than the pay package.

Rajkamal Vempati, Executive vice-president, human resources, Axis Bank

This is why several firms are going to the extent of running a full-fledged crèche. Axis Bank which runs the Reconnect programme for their women alumni has one such facility in their Mumbai headquarters. “Even working fathers are using the facility,” says a beaming Rajkamal Vempati, head, human resources at Axis Bank.

She also makes an interesting point. Out of a total of 12,000 women employees at Axis Bank, close to 550 go on maternity leave every year out of which 15% tend to drop out of work in two years. “We try to get a good proportion of the attrition back on board through the Reconnect programme,” says Vempati. It also makes more sense for firms to have their own people back, for there are no culture fit problems. In Axis Bank’s case, such returning employees are given a full role right from day one since they are the alumni of the bank. “The biggest endorsement can come where the returnees are trusted with challenging assignments. We crafted roles that tested them for challenging assignments,” indicates Vempati. 

Priya Nartiang from Axis Bank took on a challenging assignment after she came back. Before leaving Axis Bank, Nartiang was taking care of collections — a highly male dominated segment in the industry. She was the only woman in a team of 11; and she was doing really well. Six months after the birth of her child she decided to take a break from work. Nevertheless, she was in touch with her line manager and once her child was in school, she decided to come back. By November 2014, she was back on board. “My role has progressed since I joined and now I take care of quality and training,” says Nartiang.

Vijay Anand, Senior vice-president and managing director at Intuit India’s Development CenterReconnect commenced in September 2014 and so far has managed to get close to 80 women alumni back to work. The bank’s programme has certain advantages having adapted the closed architecture of only taking in women alumni. In this case, there is no need for running a full-fledged internship programme and face the issue of low conversion rates of interns to full time employees.

However, in firms running re-entry programmes that are open to all women, recruiters are getting in dedicated mentors and senior women leaders as guides to make sure these women do not face a confidence crisis. “We had to have people they trusted to counsel and support, and also have mentors to overcome confidence issues. Having these counselors available for confidential conversations was very important to make sure they were okay,” asserts Anand from Intuit India.

Despite this, the overall picture in the industry still remains bleak, as conversion rates of such interns to full time employees are as low as 50% in the country. “In India, it is as low as 50% while in the US it is in the range of 80-90%. The rejections are not because of a lack of talent but mainly due to cultural problems,” says Sheetal Arora from womenrestart, a web portal dealing with career re-entry for women.

Sheetal Arora Founder, womenrestartArora herself had seen her friends not being able to get back to work after breaks. That’s when she thought of starting a dedicated portal for such women. “There were some serious questions. My friends wanted to know how I managed to do something even after taking two breaks and it seemed some of them were desperate to get back,” Arora explains. Sometimes, it is the interview process that ends up as an improper filter for such returnees. The methods used in lateral hiring may not work in re-entry programmes, especially if the technicalities get too complicated. That’s where firms are trying a different approach.

“We started looking for the right kind of commitment from employees and just went by their past experience and capabilities. There was no need to make them write a code immediately,” Anand says. At times, skepticism of hiring managers also acts as a deterrent in getting returnees on board. This is because high productivity expectations can lead to unintentional biases against such returnees. That’s where the role of the manager becomes critical. 

While there are managers who go beyond their means to get the best out of such returnees, handling other team members is also something that they have to keep in mind. Issues sometime crop up with other team members who may not take the flexibilities given to returnees in a good spirit. Why should someone who just came back to work after a period of two years be given flexible work hours when we are slogging for 12 hours a day?

That’s not an easy question to answer but firms are trying to reason by way of sensitisation exercises alongside these programmes. “You will have such women who will come in for two hours and others may not be aware of the reason for such flexibility. Sensitisation is very important for the success of such programmes,” says Sandhydeep Puri — head of organisation effectiveness, Apparel & Retail at Aditya Birla Group — who looks after ENCORE, a career re-entry programme for women.

But the more fundamental question is what’s in it for firms to really engage in this seemingly altruistic motive?

Firms often say diversity is the intent for running such programs. That may be true but then why not bring in fresh graduates out of college? One of the reasons is that most of these firms look at the combination of commitment and past experience that these returnees bring on board. “Employers certainly benefit because it’s not easy to find talent and through these programmes, they attract really good talent that has opted out of workforce due to any personal reason,” says Puri. Moreover, experience does bring in some maturity and commitment to work — a trait that hiring managers always look for. 

Asha Vade from Intuit India shares her story. Back in 2007, she went on a maternity break while working for a big investment bank. Her son was born in September that year and within a week of her child’s birth her manager called to inform about her promotion. She was now a vice-president in the organisation.

Vade did join back in early 2008 post her maternity leave. With the new designation, work started taking a considerable amount of her time and mind space. However, by 2010 she was having second thoughts. Was she really spending enough time with her child? Was she being fair? A three-year old baby is not going to question the allocation of time but a mother always feels it. That’s when she decided to quit.

Come May 2015, Vade should have guessed it was time to get second time lucky. Intuit Again was just in the offing. “And it just happened by chance for me,” says Vade who made it to the last five from the first batch of Intuit Again interns. This was after a gap of almost four years. Prior to joining Intuit India, she had almost 12 years of experience. Her current designation is Agile Program Manager and she takes care of work deliveries of three different teams. According to Anand, she is one of the top talents in the organisation today.

Running such programmes does increase the expense with the need for more hiring managers, programme co-ordinators, and other overheads, but Anand strongly believes that despite the additional expenses, bringing a returnee on board is a good bargain. Firms have a good chance of reducing risks as these employees come with significant industry experience. “We get a chance to minimise risks because we get people who stay for a long time — the commitment is huge. In the longer run, the recruitment costs pay off,” he says.

Sometimes a candidate’s out of work experience also comes in handy and firms are now valuing such skills.

Bunty Bohra Chief Executive Officer, Goldman Sachs Services in IndiaThe Goldman Sachs Returnship Program that was initiated in 2013 in India has been fairly successful too. “In total we had 85 interns, the majority of whom received full time roles,” says Bunty Bohra, chief executive officer, Goldman Sachs Services. “Some of the experiences that they have outside of the office are really valuable in terms of skills like multi-tasking, prioritizing and dealing with different constituencies. I genuinely believe that some of the skills they learn through the experience of being out of the workforce are significantly relevant to an environment like ours,” says Bohra.

Rohini Ananth who worked in the telecom industry before she took a break, joined Goldman Sachs after she met a ‘Returnship’ employee at a conference. “During Returnship, because I have a London facing role, expectations were clearly set and there was a flexible work arrangement that was made. It was made clear to the team that I would not be available for a few hours in the evening, and then I will come back and log in,” says Ananth. Goldman Sachs also has a childcare center available for full time employees. The childcare center can accommodate 90 children.

Bohra believes bringing these women back into the workforce has its own advantages — many times they are more self-motivated because they have the zeal to come back to work even after a break. “Apart from more maturity and experience, they are also more self-aware about their own strengths and skills,” opines Bohra.

The mushrooming segment
While several organisations are recognising the merit in devising a re-entry programme, the early adopters are already looking at the next level. “Currently, we are refreshing the whole TSCIP programme. While retaining the ethos of what TSCIP stands for, we are looking at multiple formats for engaging women joining this programme. We are also reviewing elements such as hiring channels, compensation and allied benefits. The idea is to provide more options and expand the channel through which we can get more women back into the workforce — and stay there,” points out Rajan from Tata Sons.

Meanwhile, companies like Target India — the Indian arm of the US based firm Target — has just introduced the ‘Back on Target’ programme. Target India is based out of Bengaluru and has a workforce of 2,900 people. The company is engaged in work that supports the global strategy across business areas such as technology, marketing, human resources, finance, merchandising, supply chain, property development, analytics and reporting.

Under the ‘Back on Target’ programme, a returnee goes through 12-16 weeks of internship post which they face an assessment. Women returnees are given up to 50% or #5,000 — whichever is lesser — as reimbursements for day care expenses, paid leaves and flexibility in work hours.  

In the four odd months since the inception of the programme, the company has received close to 150 responses. “We have hired only one so far and we are in the process of filling nine more positions,” points out Shalini Natraj, senior director of human resources at Target India. 

Natraj says the firm would continue to do more marketing both internally and externally. The returnees would be taking up roles based on engineering, analytics and marketing.

Arora from womenrestart says she is looking at a 300% growth for this fiscal year. Ofcourse the numbers now are not high. “So far, we have placed 15 people into such programs run by various organisations. The figures may be small but we see a huge potential,” Arora says. Next year she plans to conduct a conference that would bring together all major firms that run such programs for women. 

Sairee Chahal Founder, sheroesSeveral other career platforms are also coming to the fore with a focus on such initiatives. Sheroes is one such platform that has a dedicated page for jobs available for returning women. Founder Sairee Chahal believes that a lot can be done to improve the hiring via such programmes. “There are several re-entry programmes but unfortunately not all are structured with empathy. Firms sometimes demand cutting-edge skills, which one cannot expect from returning women. The positive side is that organisations are taking the leap towards such initiatives,” Chahal explains. 

JobsForHer is another portal that connects employers with women who want to restart their career. The portal began operations in March 2015 and about two months ago, it scaled up its website by including job opportunities from across India. The firm claims it currently has 1,500 companies across India recruiting through the portal and 10,000 monthly visitors to the website. “We are looking at further engagements with more companies. The response has been wonderful and companies are now serious about this talent pool. They feel that this is a great way of getting experienced talent without much of a notice period,” sums up Neha Bagaria, founder and CEO, JobsForHer.

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