Steps to Build a Return-to-Work Program

Ever since Goldman Sachs started its return-to-work program in 2006, “returnships” have grown into a viable tool that can benefit companies as well as experienced professionals who’ve taken extended time off.

Goldman’s effort started in 2006, when it offered a one-day information session in New York for folks who’d interrupted their careers and wanted to get back to work. In 2008, the bank began its returnship program, an eight-week paid internship in non-client facing departments, where returning, experienced workers could get their feet wet again. It even trademarked the term Returnship, with an upper-case “R.”

Other companies have adopted similar programs since, touting the advantages of placing experienced talent in needed positions while keeping a long-term commitment at arm’s length. Many returnship experiences have turned into long-term roles.

For talent managers looking to develop a similar back-to-work program in their organizations, Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of iRelaunch, a career re-entry programming firm, has a few tips.

Do your research. The first step, Cohen said, is for talent managers to find employees already in the company who have taken an extended career break and returned to work successfully. Use company surveys to find these people. Career breaks can be anything from mothers taking time off to raise children to men taking a break in their careers for personal reasons. Cohen said finding those who have been successful in returning to work after long breaks goes a long way in presenting evidence to key stakeholders that such programs can be successful.

“If you have any skeptical people that [think] the population of people who have been out of work for a long time are too risky to be hired,” Cohen said. “Having examples already in the company shifts perspectives a little bit.”

Start small and call it a pilot. For smaller firms with fewer resources, Cohen said returnship programs should start as an extension of an existing internship program, typically meant more for college students just entering the workforce or wanting a summer work experience. Piloting a returnship program as such allows talent managers to prove to senior leaders the validity of such an effort and shows success for potential further expansion.

Maria Kieslich, senior director of operations at TeenLife Media LLC, a company that develops programs for teenagers, started with the company as an unpaid “executive intern” for a defined period of time. At the time, Kieslich was one of the only people in such a situation in the company, which has since expanded the offering. She recommends that talent managers be clear upfront about expectations for the work arrangement, including the period of time, responsibilities and compensation.

“If you [as a manager] just have them show up on day one and say, ‘We need you to help with something,’ you’re not putting them in a position to be successful,” Kieslich said.

Tout the temporary nature of a returnship to hiring managers. Since most hiring managers might be skeptical, it’s important to emphasize the temporary nature of the program — there’s no need to hire the person full time once the designated period is over, Cohen said. In fact, some hiring managers might fancy the arrangement — which, like a college internship, acts as a sort of try-out, but for experienced professionals.

Start small. When building a returnship program, don’t go for a home run on the first pitch, Cohen said. Instead, find a hiring manger within the company who needs an experienced professional to take on some responsibilities of an important project or help with work overflow. Curate a few returnship success stories and then expand.

Tap networks; hold an information session. The next step, Cohen said, is to tap local college and university alumni networks and other resources to promote the program. Invite potential return-to-work candidates and other key external stakeholders to a one-day information session about the program. Again, if resources are tight, combine a returnship information session with any existing internship information programming and promotion.

Orient return-to-work hires. Once you have a few hires in the program, be sure to orient them specifically to their roles and responsibilities, Cohen said. Managers should remember that these are folks who have been out of work for an extended period of time and may need a refresh on what’s expected of them or even some of the industry’s fundamentals.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor at Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at