InHerSight asked Jenna Richardson, cofounder of Career Cooperative, to discuss the struggles of returning to work after a leave of absence. These are her answers, in her own words. Are you a recruiter with job advice to share? Email our managing editor Beth Castle at firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
What’s your elevator pitch?
I am the cofounder of Career Cooperative, an Oakland, California–based, boutique consulting firm that empowers clients to face career transitions, professional growth and recruiting with confidence. We also consult with companies to attract diverse talent and support employees through career development. I started my career coaching international high school students through the transformative (and sometimes terrifying) experience of cultural exchange before making my own career transition to recruiting. Agency recruiting created the perfect opportunity to hone what lights me up: asking the right questions to get to the root of an issue and motivating others to successfully navigate toward positive change. When I am not connecting people or asking thought-provoking questions, you can find me dancing Samba, spending time with my family, or traveling!
Returning to work after a break is difficult, surprisingly so for some. What unexpected hurdles might women returning to work face?
Even if you have been doing your job for years, things look different once you’ve had some time away. Whether you’ve just taken a sabbatical abroad or are starting work again after becoming a parent, it’s important to reflect on what has changed in your life and how that will impact your return to work. Has your view on work changed? Are your skills out of practice? Do you have emotional or physical needs that didn’t exist before? Oftentimes a break from work coincides with a significant life change, so give yourself the permission to shed some things about your old identity when you return. For instance, if you’re no longer able to be the person who stays late to get it done, setting new boundaries and expectations will be a big adjustment.
Aside from your own evolution, the office has not been at a standstill while you’ve been gone, so it’s important to anticipate change. You might have a new deskmate or your whole desk may have moved! The work you laid out for your team to cover while you were out may have been taken care of, or it may be a complete mess that you’ll have to unravel and piece back together. Be prepared for it all!
Can you go into more detail about how you assess what needs to change now that you’re back at work?
First and foremost, be honest with yourself about what your capacity looks like—you likely have another person now depending on you and you now have stricter timelines you have to abide by due to logistics. If you can, start slow and ease back in with a part-time schedule for the first week or two. You may not know what “ideal” looks like on day one, so ask for what you think you need and continue to check in after the first week, month, and quarter. I also recommend doing a practice run with child care if you have the means to do so—not only does this help you get through any logistical hurdles you may have (What do I pack in the diaper bag? How long will it take me to get from the office to child care and back home? How do I get myself and baby ready in the morning? What pumping supplies will I need? How can I get my partner involved?), but it will also give you an idea of any emotional hurdles you may face as well.
When it comes to asking for the flexibility you need, be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish and be aware of how it will impact those around you. If you want more information on this topic specifically, here is a great article I just read on the topic.
If you’re job-hunting, how can you best explain the gap on your resume to employers? Do you even have to?
You want to be sure that the information presented on your resume is as accurate as possible in case of any employment checks, so be sure to represent any gaps in your experience honestly. That said, if you went on a leave while employed at a company and returned to your role after that leave, there is no need to spell that out on your resume. The cover letter and interview is an opportunity for you to explain any gaps if necessary. I wouldn’t advise getting into all of the details of the break, but it is important that you address it head-on. Keep your explanation brief, high-level, and positive in tone, and then move on to the next topic. For example, I left company X in August 2019 for personal reasons and am excited to jump back into full-time work. This role really sparked my interest because of Y.
What are some ways you can make sure you’re your most marketable self when you return to work?
Depending on how long you’ve been gone, do you need to brush up on any skills? Sometimes you have to learn or relearn skills or tools that you used to use day-in and day-out. There are a ton of online resources where you can find free and low-cost tutorials on programs. I also recommend jumping back into “work mode” before your first day to get warmed up. I recently returned to work after maternity leave and reached out to my mentors and colleagues to set-up coffee dates before my return so I could have short industry-specific conversations before having to flex my work-brain for a full eight hours. It was immensely helpful and allowed me to figure out any areas I was feeling rusty on in a safe and supportive space.
What support or benefits do most of the parents you work with say they need from their employers?
In terms of support, parents are generally looking for flexibility, patience, and a clear directive. What are the non-negotiables of my role? What do I need in order to be successful? How can I work most efficiently and effectively within the parameters of my new normal?
For benefits, health care that has a wide range of coverage and a low cost to the employee, fair parental leave policies that cover both parents and partners, and some sort of contribution toward child care. Child care costs are almost as expensive as housing costs, and in places like the San Francisco Bay area, that’s saying something.
What aspects of our workforce need to change to make it easier for women to return to work?
A more inclusive definition of parental leave so partners can take a more supportive role. A change in the idea that 40-plus hours spent working in an office is the only framework that a productive employee exists within. Employees who have relevant experience, especially if they have worked with you prior to their leave, can add value as part-time workers, remote workers, and everything in between. Sure, there are organizational and technological considerations to be made to accomodate more flexibility in the workplace, but it’s all a part of creating more inclusive (and better!) work environments.