How to hire employees returning to work after a long absence

how hire employees returning work after long absence
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“Can you please explain this gap in your resume?”

It’s the question that every candidate dreads.

In the past, “explain” has been a loaded verb, usually meaning something more like “defend,” “apologize for,” or even “lie about.” But given that the resume is receding in relevance in modern hiring, is this a question we should still be asking?

There are loads of valid reasons that someone might leave the workforce for an extended period besides laziness or lack of talent. They might be re-entering the workforce after being a stay-at-home mom or dad, for example, or after a severe bout of chronic illness. Or they might have simply taken a gap year and traveled the world. 

So does a big gap in a resume mean you shouldn’t hire a candidate? The short answer is no, and in this post, we’ll give you the long answer, as well as tips for hiring employees returning to work after a long absence.

But first, let’s go over what counts as a “long absence from work.” If you’re already up to speed on this notion, you can skip straight to our best practices.

What counts as a long absence from work?

A long absence from work is usually defined as any absence lasting longer than four weeks. It’s unusual for absences of this length to be for noncritical reasons such as a vacation, and more serious issues usually cause them. According to a UK-based study, the most common reasons for an extended work absence due to illness are:[1] 

  1. Mental health, such as clinical depression and anxiety

  2. Musculoskeletal conditions like neck strain, repetitive strain injury, and back pain

  3. Stress

Why do you need to worry about them? For starters, extended absences may be occurring at greater rates than ever before. The study cited above also found that the number of extended absences due to the effects of long COVID has skyrocketed.

But illness isn’t the only reason why people might be reentering the workforce after an extended leave. Other important reasons why someone might have a long gap in their resume include:

  • Staying at home to care for children (or extended maternity leave)

  • Taking an extended break to care for parents, elderly family members, and loved ones in need

  • Retiring but then returning to work due to financial pressures or looking for a new purpose

  • A simple career break

Many marginalized populations are disproportionately affected by these issues. For instance, studies show that women took on more responsibility for childcare[2] during the lockdown, partially explaining why 1.8 million women[3] are reported to have dropped out of the U.S. workforce during the pandemic.

Opening your hiring practice to people who are getting back into the workforce after a long break is, therefore, not just a good idea but an essential step in improving your standing as an equal-opportunity employer.

Why should you hire people who are getting back into the workforce?

That dreaded “career gap” question is partly due to historical stigmas around the need to take breaks from work.

In the past, hiring managers might have looked at a break for mental-health reasons as a sign of weakness or at breaks due to injury or pregnancy as a sign of unreliability that would deter them from investing in a candidate. 

These attitudes still exist to some extent today. Mental illness is one of the top reasons people take a long leave of absence from work, and studies show that there is significant stigma around these issues.

For example, research by McKinsey & Company found that over half of people living with mental illness believed that if someone were to find out about their history, they would doubt their character. This figure rises to 67% for people in recovery from substance-use disorder.[4]

behavioral helath conditions perceptions report

Like so many stigmas, negative perceptions of people with mental illness or prior substance-abuse issues are not entirely rational because mental-health struggles are much more common than these negative stereotypes presume.

Nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness – a total of 52.9 million in 2020. Even if they do not have a formal diagnosis, one-third of American workers state that their mental health negatively affected their job performance last year.

Clearly, you cannot realistically exclude people with mental health issues from your workforce.

If you exclude returnees because you assume that their mental-health struggles make them unreliable, you are broadcasting a message to all your employees that they should hide their struggles from you. This has disastrous knock-on effects on employee well-being, performance, and tenure at your company. 

By contrast, making your hiring process welcoming to returnees who have taken time off for their mental health does the following:

  • Sends a supportive message to all employees, creating a positive work environment

  • Boosts your employer brand

  • Opens the door for more supportive practices to be implemented at your organization in future

  • Gives your current employees more options for dealing with mental-health crises, so they’re less likely to drop out of your talent pool entirely in search of a more supportive employer

But mental-health stigmas aren’t the only ones that work against people returning to work after a long absence. 

Recruiters might also hesitate to hire older workers, thinking they may not have the digital skills to compete with younger employees. This is an ageist belief, however. In fact, older workers are a great investment for businesses: Research shows that they tend to stay longer in roles than their younger counterparts.

For instance, employees aged 55 to 64 had a median tenure of almost 10 years at their companies, over three times that of those aged 25 to 34, who stayed only 2.8 years. 

Now that you know what a long absence is and why it’s important to bring these candidates back into the workforce, here are the things you can do.

6 best practices for helping people reenter the workforce

We’ve just seen how neglecting candidates with a big gap in their resumes creates a snowball effect of bias.

best practices helping people reenter workforce

What seems like a minor preference – not hiring people without recent work experience – means you’re not just excluding one or two applicants but potentially large numbers of candidates, including caregivers and chronic illness sufferers.

Here’s how you can remove that bias from your hiring process:

Best practice

Example actions

Secure commitment from senior leadership

Present compelling facts about why returnees make great hires – maybe even send them this post!; Ask them to role model welcoming behavior in interactions with employees

Take a skills-based approach to hiring

Replace resumes with pre-employment testing, work samples, and structured interviews

Build onboarding, coaching, and mentoring programs designed specifically for returnees

Offer classroom training so that returnees can learn alongside their peers; Offer self-service coaching so they can also brush up on the skills they need; Create networking opportunities for all returnees

Offer returnees a phased return to work

Create a hybrid working plan with designated check-in points to evaluate how well their schedule is working

Make your recruitment marketing more accessible

Demonstrate diversity in your marketing images; Market open roles on sites specifically geared toward different categories of returnees

Encourage a respectful work culture

Offer company-wide training to reduce bias; Screen candidates using a Culture Add test to bring in a fresh perspective

Now, let’s paint a clearer picture of all these points.

1. Secure commitment from senior leadership

Your first stop on the journey to eliminate unfair hiring practices is to secure commitment from senior leadership.

You’d be surprised at how little impact you can make without commitment from the top. Individual hires become harder, and big changes prove flat-out impossible.

One of the biggest things you can do to make your hiring process returnee-friendly is to make it more transparent by including salary ranges in all your job ads. That sounds simple enough, right? But many traditional leaders are against it, wanting to haggle for value with candidates.

Some companies go a step further. Finance app Cleo publishes all of their salary bands for all roles in their business on an app that all jobseekers can view. Instead of doing that weird salary courtship ritual – “How much does this position pay?” “How much would you accept?” – candidates can see upfront the value of their role.

We get that it might be a tough sell to your senior leadership to believe in the benefits of workplace diversity and invest in it. But we’re here to help. Later in this article, we share key facts you can hit leaders with to help seal the deal.

2. Take a skills-based approach to hiring

One of the best ways you can remove bias from your hiring process is by taking a skills-based approach to hiring. This means de-emphasizing a candidate’s: 

  1. Work experience 

  2. Academic history 

… Or, basically, everything you can learn from a resume – and concentrating on their skills instead.

Instead of looking at what a candidate says they can do, you assess their actual skills, usually through pre-employment skills testing and work samples.

This sounds like a radical move if you’re coming straight from traditional hiring methods, but it really works. Not only is this approach more objective and less biased, but employees stay longer, too: In a study of 300,000 hires, employees who were hired with job testing stayed 15% longer in their positions[5] than those hired without testing. 

You can test soft skills like communication as well as more technical things like mechanical reasoning and familiarity with accounts payable.

Resumes aren’t just being thrown out for non-technical or management roles, either. By the end of 2021, only 43% of postings for IT jobs at Accenture contained a degree requirement; at IBM, only 29% did.

Skills-based hiring is more candidate-friendly because applicants don’t need to spend hours tweaking their resume and cover letter for a role. 

If you don’t believe us, check out our case study with Bain and Company to see how it works in practice.

3. Build onboarding, coaching, and mentoring programs designed specifically for returnees

Our third hot tip is to build policies for returnees directly into your overall learning and development plans.

These plans should include immediate training and development for new hires as part of their overall onboarding, similar to what you’d provide in graduate programs or internships. One prominent example is Amazon’s “returnships” – internships targeted directly at candidates returning to work after a long absence.

Amazon’s program takes several steps to combat the discouragement that many returnees feel on arrival back in the workforce:

Returnees’ hesitation

Amazon policies to counteract this

Unwillingness to take on an internship with no guarantee of a role at the end of it

All returnships are fully paid and benefits-eligible; They are also virtual to help employees re-acclimatize; Amazon pays for and ships a home office setup to each returnee, so they don’t have to invest before the company makes an investment in them

Lack of confidence after a long time away from the workforce

Limited initial duration of 16 weeks with regular performance check-ins; Classroom training and self-service development offerings

Worries about a lack of support

Mentorship from direct managers; Networking events with other returnees and Amazon employees

Even if you don’t set up a whole new program for returnees, you can build some of these policies into your onboarding strategies.

4. Offer returnees a phased return to work and ongoing flexible working arrangements

Asking candidates who have been out of work for an extended period to jump straight back into a 9-5 full-time job is a big ask and can be a major deterrent throughout the recruitment process. It might even be why they drop out of the recruitment pipeline at the last moment.

For instance, the onset of long COVID has been linked to a hasty return to exertions like exercise. To prevent these issues from worsening and employees needing to leave, allow them to pace themselves in their return to work. 

To accommodate this, as part of the returnee onboarding – or “reboarding” – process, provide a smooth transition and consider offering a phased return to work.

A phased return to work essentially refers to bringing employees back into the workforce in “phases” that work for their particular needs. You can also bring in elements of hybrid working in addition to utilizing a virtual onboarding process. This might look different for every employee, but an example could be:

Phase

Work schedule

Actions

1

Before starting work

An interview with the new hire to discuss their current capacities (in terms of energy and time) and their support needs (accessibility requirements or time off for doctor’s appointments);

Preboarding processes like meeting teams and getting on the IT system; Creating a plan for the next few phases, including stipulations for pay when the employee has a reduced workload

2

The employee starts with three days of work each week: one in-person and two remote

The employee starts on a reduced schedule, perhaps embracing hybrid working or doing part-time work;

Lighter responsibilities and training with teammates;

Employee and manager check-ins and evaluation meetings to discuss how this is working

3

They continue working three days a week

The employee starts taking on more responsibilities;

Review process continues until there is mutual agreement to move to the next step

4

The employee increases their number of days and/or time in the office

The employee continues with more responsibilities as their working time increases;

The review and evaluation process continues

This phased return helps employees feel valued and supported and encourages them to stay longer at the company. It also benefits their health and reduces the chance of continued issues.

Our key tip: Ensure that you agree on fair pay with the employee, in writing, at every stage.

5. Make your recruitment marketing more accessible

All of the above efforts will be for naught if you can’t get these promises in front of the right candidates with your recruitment marketing. 

Sites like LinkedIn are great for reaching passive candidates and potential hires who are currently active in your industry, but if someone has been out of work for a while, they might not use them as frequently as other resources.

With this in mind, you might consider advertising job openings on other platforms – for instance, organizations and nonprofits established to help returnee groups. Here are some examples:

Returnee group

Examples of supportive organizations, nonprofits, or job boards

Caregivers and moms re-entering the workforce

Path Forward

;

Ellevate

; Bus Stop Mamas

People living with chronic illnesses and disabilities

Diverse Ability Magazine’s disability-friendly

employers directory

People recovering from substance abuse

State-level programs like New Hampshire’s

Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative

Employees re-entering the workforce after 50

The Age Friendly Institute’s

Certified Age Friendly Employer program

Be explicit about the returnship programs you’re offering and the accommodations you’re making in your marketing materials. These might include the phased return options discussed above, as well as the other ways you’re removing bias from your hiring processes, such as:

Finally, if you’re using images and video in your marketing materials, make sure there’s diverse representation. Don’t overthink this, and have fun with it – just look at the images we use on our site and our blog to see what we mean.

6. Encourage a respectful work culture 

The bottom line is that without a respectful work culture, no matter how many phases you implement for candidates’ return to the world of work, you’re unlikely to retain them. 

However, the good news is that if you’ve read the tips in this list, you’re already on your way.

That support you secured from senior leadership at the beginning will do wonders for creating a positive and accepting work culture, particularly if leaders can act as role models for a welcoming attitude to returnees. They might do this by: 

  1. Expressing their support directly to new hires 

  2. Discussing mental health openly with colleagues (for instance, in town hall meetings)

  3. Sharing their own mental or physical health struggles (if they’re comfortable doing so)

You can also orient your hiring processes toward finding candidates who share your company values of acceptance, regardless of whether they are returnees. One way you might do this is by hiring for culture add over culture fit. In other words, prioritize shared values over “likeability” when screening candidates.

As for your existing employees, consider implementing ongoing initiatives like company-wide training for bias prevention (to target ageism, for example). You should also clearly publicize the channels for employees to report issues with prejudice from coworkers.

On the surface, this might sound like a really hard job. And hey, HR is a big challenge – that’s probably one of the reasons you enjoy it, right? But creating a cohesive culture isn’t as hard as it sounds, even in a hybrid work environment.

Pre-employment testing enables you to hire great candidates returning to work after a long absence

We can all agree that asking candidates to defend the long gap in their resume should be a thing of the past. 

You now know that it is possible for hiring managers to encourage candidates to be open about their employment history, while meaningfully reassuring them that this information will be received supportively, and make it clear that the information they share won’t sabotage their chances of being hired.

You also know the first steps of doing this. Now it’s time to put your learning into action.

Check out our 10 dos and don’ts for diverse hiring if you want to learn more about opening up your recruitment practices.

Or ensure that whatever the work history of your next hire, they align with your company on values by using our Culture Add test.


Sources

  1. “Health and Wellbeing at Work 2022”. (April 2022). CIPD. Retrieved November 8, 2022. https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/health-wellbeing-work-report-2022\_tcm18-108440.pdf 

  2. Aragao, Carolina. (October 11, 2022). “For many U.S. moms, pandemic brought increase in time spent caring for kids while doing other things”. Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 8, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/10/11/for-many-u-s-moms-pandemic-brought-increase-in-time-spent-caring-for-kids-while-doing-other-things/

  3. Casella, Megan. (July 22, 2021). “The pandemic drove women out of the workforce. Will they come back?”. Politico. Retrieved November 8, 2022. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/07/22/coronavirus-pandemic-women-workforce-500329

  4. Coe, Erica; Cordina, Jenny; Enomoto, Kana; Seshan, Nikhil. (July 23, 2021). “Overcoming stigma: Three strategies toward better mental health in the workplace”. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved November 8, 2022. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/overcoming-stigma-three-strategies-toward-better-mental-health-in-the-workplace

  5. Hoffman, Mitchell; Kahn, Lisa B.; Li, Danielle. (November 2015). NBER. Retrieved November 8, 2022. https://www.nber.org/papers/w21709

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