It’s a dilemma in the career re-entry world: What level is the right level to return to after a career break?
Returning professionals who take a lower-level position than the one they were in before their career break may worry they are selling themselves short. Employers can be confused by the relauncher who applies for a lower level role, because they appear overqualified. Conversely, some returning professionals believe they should be returning at a higher level than what the employer views as available or appropriate.
Sue Dodick was senior portfolio manager and one of most senior women at Sanford C. Bernstein before her 12 year career break. She relaunched at the (lower) vice president level after successfully completing JPMorgan Chase’s ReEntry Program. Over the next five years she moved up to become head of equities for the company’s Endowments and Foundations Group, and she recently left to join a former colleague who runs a family office. “You have to have a little bit of humility in coming back,” she says. “I had 12 years with my family, plus the 2008 financial crash was in the middle of that. It was hard to gauge what to expect because you really don’t know.” When Dodick was hired after the three-month ReEntry program, she realized that her former administrative assistant at Bernstein, who had gone on to get an MBA, now worked at JPMorgan Chase a a managing director — meaning she outranked her old boss. “That would bother some people but not me,” Dodick says. “I just wanted to work with people I enjoyed, doing work I enjoyed.”
Focusing on “getting in” can make sense. “The first role is very important because it erases the gap,” says Michelle Friedman, founder of Advancing Women’s Careers and an expert in women’s career paths. “Relaunchers may not think about it in these terms when negotiating level and compensation for their first job back, but there is a huge value-add in that they are now currently working and not coming off of a career break anymore. Also, if they are coming in as part of a formal return-to-work program, part of the compensation is the training and professional development and mentoring the program offers. This is important for the relauncher to consider if they are worried or skeptical that they are selling themselves short in some way. They can also ask to revisit their level and compensation at a designated future time as part of their negotiation.”
Some “returnship” programs are role-based. There are two types of “returnship” programs: project-based as described above and illustrated by Sue Dodick’s experience, and role-based. Both are similar in format to campus-level internships, with built-in supports such as mentors, buddies, professional development sessions, opportunities to meet senior managers, and a structured orientation and onboarding program. In role-based programs, each participant is accepted into an actual open role, e.g. program manager, process engineer, supply chain account specialist, etc. During the first 12 or 16 weeks (or longer, depending on the program) of their work in that role, they are part of the returnship program, which means they have built-in supports such as mentors, and structured orientations, onboarding, and opportunities to meet senior managers. In role-based programs, participants can be at different levels. When the program ends, usually after a few months, if the participant is successful, they remain in the same role and level, and convert to employee status. However, compensation may be adjusted upward at that point, depending on performance and demonstrated potential during the returnship, especially for those who are coming off of long career breaks. Examples of role-based returnship programs are UTC Re-Empower, Johnson & Johnson Re-ignite, IBM Tech Re-entry, and Mastercard Relaunch Your Career.
In role-based programs, there is no period of uncertainty about what kind of title and level a participant may end up in. Relauncher candidates apply for the role they think is the right one for them, and the employer picks the candidate who they believe is the best fit for the role. The predictability of role-based programs for all involved is the reason they are becoming more popular; employers do not have to guess what areas of their company might be hiring six months or more from when applications open, and participants know from the outset what role they will have.
Because participants are coming off of career breaks of one to over 20 years, to the extent the employer views hiring them as a risky proposition, the testing out period lowers that perceived risk, plus allows the employer to base the hiring decision on an actual work sample instead of a series of interviews.
For relaunchers who return to work as one-off hires and not part of a formal return-to-work program, the level at which they return can be all over the map. Kuae Kelch Mattox, a former MSNBC producer who was returning after a 13 year career break, relaunched first as booking producer for ARISE TV, a media company broadcasting in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, and then as news editor for the British news agency Southwest News Service. Ultimately, she was named editorial producer at CNN. “It took such a long time for me to get back that I had to swallow my pride and dispense with this notion that I had to get back at a certain level,” she says. “I needed to get the boat in the ocean and then steer it…keep in mind I was almost 50 years old. I was thinking, ‘How am I going to get back in this young field, having been out for 13 years?’ When I returned to work at CNN, the job only required 3 years of experience. I had almost 30 years of experience.”
Relauncher Tracy Shapiro returned to work in a temporary finance coordinator role in 2011 at Lindt & Sprugli’s U.S. headquarters in Exeter, New Hampshire, after a 13 year career break. Her performance in the temp role exceeded expectations and she was subsequently hired. She was promoted eight times over the ensuing seven years and is now financial controller. “I’ve done all the roles that everyone on my team has done and that gives me a lot of credibility with them,” she says. “I know exactly what I’m asking them to do and they know it.”
A corporate recruiter who was a relauncher herself, and who was recruiting relaunchers for her company’s return-to-work program, commented that some participants were hesitant to take a position below the level they left years before. She detected a level of entitlement from certain candidates who were offered lower level roles. She wants relaunchers to understand they might have to start at a lower level when re-entering. She had to do that when she re-entered the workforce, and she moved up quickly due to her past experience. She’s been back three years and is now at a higher level than where she was before her career break.
“The first job back is temporary,” says Advancing Women’s Careers’ Friedman. “It is just the start of the rest of someone’s career post-career break, and while it is important to feel the level and salary make sense and are fair all around, the next step is equally important — where do they go after that first role?”
What level a relauncher returns to post-career break will continue to be a critical issue. From the relauncher perspective, high performers don’t lose their abilities just because they take a career break. As formal return-to-work programs mature and evolve, and there are more successful relaunchers inside employers, there will be more data points for correlating job level when returning to work — with prior work experience, educational experiences past and present, relevant experiences during the career break, and length of career break.
Longer term, as relaunching after extended leave becomes more of a normalized career path, employers’ and relaunchers’ expectations about the “right” level should converge.