Career-break Returnees: The Talent Hiding In Plain Sight

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People take career breaks for different reasons. Some stop working to raise children or care for elderly relatives; others take a break for their physical and mental well-being. Regardless of the reasons, many used to hide this break in the resume when returning to work.

Not anymore. More Asia businesses are tapping into this under-valued talent pool to fill competitive, experienced positions, drive DEI initiatives and enhance employer branding.

Uncover the value of career-break returnees

One of these companies is Citi Hong Kong. The bank launched the Citi Return to Work Program (Citi RTW) in May 2022, aiming to support women that had a professional hiatus — for two years or more — in a financial services career.

“Citi is tapping into the pool of competent female professionals who have taken time off for personal reasons and are ready to return to the workforce,” noted Samantha Pang, country human resources officer, Citi Hong Kong, in a blog.

Apart from the access to an untapped pool of talent, she said the program is also expected to empower the banks’ equitable and inclusive culture to become a business growth driver.  

“We believe that hiring people from different backgrounds with diverse perspectives brings advantages to our teams,” she added. “Embracing diverse teams, ideas and possibilities helps us drive growth and progress.”

This kind of program could be rare in Asia but not unique. Companies like Amazon, Deloitte, and Morgan Stanley offer similar support for professionals who took an extended career-break, some for as long as seven years.

Recruitment firm Ambition, the supporting partner of Citi RTW, also started its Back to Work program in Hong Kong in 2018. The firm’s director of banking & financial services, Rhoda Rivera, said it is the first recruitment firm in the city to offer free-of-charge support for candidates returning from a career break.

“It was met with lots of positive feedback from both participants and clients,” said Rivera. “With this success, we extended it to other Asia offices like Singapore and KL.”

COVID-19 changes attitude

Taking a career break is not uncommon. A LinkedIn survey found that 62% of employees have taken a career break. But it was not commonly accepted until recently.

Not too long ago, many businesses still viewed employment gaps with skepticism. Many candidates did not make it through pre-screening procedures. Many employees also felt their skills are in question.

“COVID-19 called on many of us to find and prioritize our purpose, encouraging people to take control of their own lives,” said Lisa Neuberger, co-author of Rebalance: How women lead, parent, partner… and thrive.

Gartner’s survey, which noted that 65% of women felt the pandemic made them rethink the importance of work in their lives, supports her observation.

As a former managing director at Accenture, Neuberger also took multiple breaks throughout her career. She said COVID-19 created an environment that is more acceptable for businesses and women to take a career break and return from one. Part of the reason is that the pandemic forced many to work from home, creating more awareness of the hard work required at home.

“Who’s going to help my kid with their schoolwork? What to buy for dinner?” asked Rebalance co-author Monica Brand. She is also the co-founder and managing partner of Quona Capital, a venture capital firm that balances profits and purpose. She observed that the pandemic also forced men to ask questions daily when working from home, developing more awareness and empathy towards the family caretakers.
Self-care takes priority in a knowledge economy

Furthermore, COVID-19 has raised the awareness of self-care.

“It is like on a plane; you are often asked to put on your oxygen mask before helping others,” said Neuberger. “Taking care of yourself can also be a selfless act.”

Neuberger added that being resilient and successful was about finding things that gave you power and strength — whether a walk on the beach, drinking a glass of wine, or taking a career break. She said throughout her 24+ years with Accenture, she took multiple career breaks, including maternity leave, going to graduate school, and taking a sabbatical.

“Each time when I came back to work, I was more refreshed with a new perspective. I was eager to re-engage and bring more to the workplace.” With a beginner’s mind, clarity, and intention to contribute, she said career-break returnees have much to offer their employers.

Brand added self-care was also essential to be successful in a competitive knowledge economy.  Unlike in the industrial age, where physical efforts contributed significantly to productivity, idea creation is the key to success in the knowledge economy. For people to be at their best selves to create, they need self-care.

“We need to challenge the notion that flexibility runs counter to profitability,” said Brand. “Being generous with time and flexibility does not necessarily conflict with the bottom line.”

As the co-founder of Quona, Brand admitted it was not easy to run a fast-growing business with people taking career breaks. But it did create a more resilient operation, allowing the company to be more nimble and agile to handle different challenges.

The power of support and network

Rivera from Ambition added more organizations in Asia were beginning to realize the advantages of career-break returnees.

“Many find these talents are a source of highly committed and skilled professionals that tend to work very hard,” she said. All they need is some support to boost their confidence and an opportunity to be seen. 

She added that the firm’s program provides basic training like CV writing, coaching, and role-play in job interviews. But more importantly, this classroom training environment created a support group. It revitalized their confidence by engaging with other committed career-break returnees going through similar challenges and experiences.

“The power of having a network is real,” observed Neuberger. She said Brand and another co-author met through a network of professional women balancing their career ambitions with being new moms and a desire to contribute meaningfully to society. She noted that the support, reflection, and experiences shared within this group empowered their career success and built the foundation of their book.

“’If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together.’ This is an African proverb that supports us,” concluded Brand.

Sheila Lam is the contributing editor of DigitalWorkforceTrends. Covering IT for 20 years as a journalist, she has witnessed the emergence, hype, and maturity of different technologies but is always excited about what's next. You can reach her at [email protected].

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