Keeping the Connection When Female Employees Take Leave

By Charlotte Huff

Apr. 20, 2005

Not losing talented women is only half the battle. Leaders at Booz Allen Hamilton have recently taken steps to reconnect with lost talent by offering recently departed employees–generally women at home with young children–short-term projects on a contract basis.

    Depending upon the project, the woman may work a couple days a week, during school hours or longer, says DeAnne Aguirre, a senior vice president and managing partner of the global organization and change leadership practice. Ideally, she says, the effort will coax some women back.

    “We have a tie to that person,” she says. “We are hoping what will happen is that five or six years from now, when they are looking to re-enter the workplace, they don’t even look anyplace else.”

    Booz Allen Hamilton is one of 19 U.S. and U.K. companies involved with the Hidden Brain Drain task force, formed last year in partnership with the nonprofit Center for Work-Life Policy. The group’s overall goal is to retain and nurture gifted female and minority employees. But that can’t be done effectively, Aguirre and other task force participants say, unless companies become better skilled at helping women manage pregnancies and other periodic timeouts that are likely to punctuate female careers.

    Aguirre recounts recently sitting at a table surrounded by powerful women–all partners at Booz Allen Hamilton. But few of their careers, they realized, had followed a clear linear path. Most listed eight or nine career interruptions as they strived to balance personal and professional demands. Aguirre describes her own story as a typical scenario. She’s had three pregnancies. (Her four children are all under age 8, including 6-year-old twins.) She’s attended business school. At one point, she moved to Brazil because of her husband’s job.

    “The male partners in the room, they are sitting there trying to think of one (career interruption),” recalls Aguirre. “Some of them moved offices. Other than that, they didn’t take time out.”

Hoping they won’t look
    It will take at least five years before the consulting firm knows whether the new initiative is recapturing previously lost talent, Aguirre says. But in the short term, the approach has provided the firm a cost-effective way to quickly tap a savvy talent pool, while simultaneously reaping a lot of good will, she says.

    “When we don’t need them (Booz Allen alums), we don’t have to pay them,” she says. “But when we are too busy, we call them and they do short projects–maybe three months and they are done. And they love it. And we love it.”

One-third of professional women drop out of the workforce at some point, most commonly for child care responsibilities, according to a survey of 2,443 women and 653 men sponsored by several members of the Hidden Brain Drain task force. They don’t stop working for long. The average departure is 2.2 years, but the evidence of bad blood is clear-cut.

    Just 5 percent of women surveyed–and none of those working in banking or finance– wanted to return to their previous employer.

    “They felt quite unsupported,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and co-author of the survey’s results, published March in the Harvard Business Review. “They felt like they weren’t offered any flexibility. They felt like they weren’t valued as they left.”

    “One lesson to come out of this,” she says, “is that the terms of disengagement are very important.”

Time off for Olympics
    To both retain and rehire talented women, more companies need to offer some compromise between quitting and working on hyperdrive, says Hewlett, citing task force participant Ernst & Young as one role model. Since the mid-1990s, the accounting firm has offered a variety of flexible schedules, including reduced hours. By 2004, 24 percent of the firm’s managers and senior managers were boomerang employees–men and women who had left and rejoined the company–compared with 20 percent just five years before, according to Ernst & Young spokeswoman Ciara O’Sullivan.

    Since the early 1990s, Eli Lilly also has left the door open wider behind some departing employees, offering three years of dependent-care leave. The leave isn’t just offered for new moms, but for any parent with a child care issue, says Candice Lange, director of workforce partnering. One father requested the leave so his daughter could pursue Olympic training in another state.

    The pharmaceutical company, which also offers a variety of flexible work arrangements, doesn’t guarantee a job, Lange stresses. But officials strongly encourage former employees to reapply within the three-year window, Lange says. “We ask them to do two things: Keep their skills up, and stay in touch.”

    From 2000 through 2003, 470 employees have requested the family leave, according to Eli Lilly statistics. Of those, nearly one-third–141 employees–have returned. Ninety employees have permanently left the company.

Home for lunch
    Companies also can reach out to talented alums in other ways, Hewlett says, such as pairing former employees with a mentor so that they hear about networking and training opportunities. “Women are absolutely willing to put some of their own dollars into this,” Hewlett says. The issue, she says, is more “about having access to these things, because they feel so isolated.”

    Ani Singh, a consultant, was pregnant with her daughter when she lost her job during a 2002 round of layoffs at Booz Allen. While she enjoyed her time with her newborn, she always planned to resume her career. Once her daughter neared her first birthday, Singh started to network through Booz Allen contacts and the company’s online job postings. Then last year Aguirre got in touch, telling Singh about a Booz Allen educational client just 10 minutes from her suburban Washington home.

    The contract position, Singh says, keeps her tapped into the firm. “It provides me the opportunity to make contacts with people should I want to go back,” she says. And the hours “aren’t bad–approximately 50 hours a week,” allowing her to zip home for lunch some days.

Charlotte Huff is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.

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