A Complete Guide to Implementing a Successful Returnship Program

What is a Returnship?

A returnship, also known as a return-to-work program, is essentially an internship, that provides career opportunities for individuals who have taken time off from the workforce for any variety of reasons. While these individuals can be men or women, they are typically women who are experienced professionals and have taken time off to raise children or care for loved ones who may need help or have fallen ill. They are often referred to as “Returners”.

A typical Returnship hires Returners into positions that are commensurate with their professional experience with a corresponding salary. The main reason for this is that the typical recruiting process underestimates their capabilities due to the gap in their work history and forces them into positions that are below their skill level, if they consider them at all. This results in Returners, who are mostly women, struggling to reach Manager, Director, VP, or Executive level roles.

Returnships also offer extra training, nurturing, and mentorship to help Returners reacquaint themselves with the workplace and improve any skills, including soft skills, that may have become rusty.

Why do Returnships exist?  

Unfortunately, the recruiting process for many companies is set up to place less value on candidates that have a gap in their work history. This preference may be something recruiters are instructed to do, or it may be built into the companies recruiting technology or ATS (Applicant Tracking System). The result is that companies are missing out on some great talent. And because Returners are typically women, the talent they are missing out on is often female.

Returnship programs aim to bridge this talent gap.

Benefits of a Returnship for any company

There are many benefits for any company looking to implement a Returnship Program.

Untapped Talent Pool
This is the most obvious and critical part of any returnship program. Access to untapped talent. Most recruiting processes penalize or completely disregard resumes that have a gap in their work history. The result is a talent pool with significant work experience that is often overlooked. Sometimes the issue is with the company’s recruiting technology and sometimes it’s a process issue. But either way, the result is the same. Great talent goes unnoticed without a returnship in place.

Improve Diversity
The business case for a diverse workforce is now overwhelming. Studies have shown that diversity increases profitability, results in more creative solutions to business problems, creates workforces that are more resilient, and creates organizations that outperform ones that are not diverse. Any way you look at it, a workforce that is gender, culturally, racially, age, and socioeconomically more diverse simply performs better. And leveraging a returnship program to hire experienced, female professionals who have taken a career break is proven to increase employee diversity.

Create a Pipeline of Female Talent 
Most returners are female and a Hewlett-Packard study shows that women don’t apply for a job unless they are close to a 100% match for the role. A subsequent study by LinkedIn confirmed this. This finding has nothing to do with whether or not the women think they can do the job, it’s simply a reflection on the fact that they don’t think they will be considered. Now compound this with a gap in work history and women are even less likely to apply. Returnships send a clear message that a company values women returning to the workforce and the unique perspective they often bring.

Increase Employee Loyalty
Companies that invest time and resources into diversity and inclusion send a clear message that all employees are valued. The result is employees that feel valued which increases loyalty and a workforce that is proud of their employer. Our experience has shown that returnships rank extremely high when it comes to employer programs that employees are proud of.

Diverse Thought Equals Better Outcomes
Homogenous teams usually come to conclusions faster than more diverse teams. This may sound like a positive thing, but it’s not. The reason is that homogenous teams typically think alike so agreement to an answer to a problem comes quicker. But this doesn’t mean that it’s the best answer. In fact, it’s often not. But a more diverse team, while having to work harder at reaching an agreement on an answer, arrive at a better solution more often. A 2009 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin backs this up.

So where does a returnship fit here? Professionals with a career gap typically have life experiences that are very different than employees with a more traditional career path. This unique view can add diverse ideas and solutions to most companies.

Increase Company Reputation as a Great Place to Work  
Being recognized as a great place to work requires unique and proactive programs that set you apart from other employers. Returnships can be part of that effort. Two-thirds of all job seekers say that a diverse and inclusive workplace is important when evaluating companies and job offers. This number goes up to 83% for millennials. Highly visible returnship programs help significantly with this issue.

The Returner and the Company Can Test Each Other Out Before Committing
There is always risk associated with the hiring process. But a 16, 20, or 24-week returnship significantly minimizes these risks. Returnships, similar to internships, allow the returnship participant and the company to evaluate fit for the role and culture before making a decision on long-term employment.

85% Hire Rate for Returnships
A properly planned out and implemented Returnship can result in a significant number of quality hires. In fact, returnships to date have resulted in an 85% hire rate at the end of the returnship program. The reason for this is that returners are often one of the most dedicated and hard-working group of professionals available to employers.

We often hear how amazed our corporate partners are at the drive and work ethic returning women have. These women are appreciative of the opportunity and excited about reapplying their brainpower to a thriving and challenging work environment.

Highly Motivated Employees 
Most returners have grown frustrated with their job search before landing an opportunity through a Returnship. They feel overlooked and unappreciated. The result is a highly motivated and hardworking group that has unmatched drive and work ethic. Many of WBW’s partners tell us how amazed they are with every returner they hire.

Great Social Media Content 
The stories that come out of Returnships are often very inspiring and make for social media content that evokes emotion and connection as most people know someone who has struggled to return to the workforce after a career break. A few examples we have seen at Women Back to Work include a woman who took a 19-year break to raise her three children, one of which had health challenges. Another example is a woman who took multiple years off to care for her ailing husband. And there are many more. The amazing and moving part of the story is that these women never gave up and are now significant contributors to their teams and company because of returnship programs.

Impacting Lives
Aside from all the business benefits, there is a community benefit to Returnships. They impact real lives and families. Many of the women who are hired through returnships are unlikely to have found a role that matched their skill set due to the gap in their resume. If they found work at all, it was likely a role that was far beneath the role they had when they left the workforce. This fact is inequitable and returnships are a way to correct this problem.

Signals to Other Employees
Active Returnship programs signal to other company employees that there is a way back should they need to take a career break. This is another way to increase employee loyalty and potentially ease the stress of workers who may feel the need to choose between their job and caring for a loved one or raising a child. Allowing new parents and other employees to transition smoothly back into office life will help your company attract top talent.

(See a few of Women Back to Work’s successful Returnship implementations.)

Implementing a successful Returnship

Where to Start
The first thing to do is figure out if there is an appetite within the company for a Returnship program. It takes a certain mindset and buy-in from a few departments to make it happen. These departments include Talent Acquisition, the head of whichever department(s) are participating, your MSP if you have one, and a select number of hiring managers in that department. Human Resources and any contingent workforce leaders may also need to be involved.

Employment Status
We see a variety of implementation strategies when it comes to engaging and hiring returners for a returnship program. These models include:

Hiring the returner cohort as contract workers is the preferred method to engage the returner talent pool. The contractor hiring process can be done through any Managed Service Provider (MSP), is typically quicker, and once hired, this scenario allows the employer to evaluate the returner and it also allows the returner to evaluate the role and company to make sure it’s a fit. Then, after the returnship is complete, convert some or all of the returners to direct/permanent status based on their performance and desire to continue working for your company.

Commit to the returners at the very beginning by hiring them as direct, or permanent, employees. This approach can lend a sense of pride for the returners as they realize the commitment the company is making to them. As a company, you still can have some sort of probationary period during the Returnship where the company evaluates each returner and each returner evaluates the company to see if they feel it is a good fit for their career aspirations.

Hire returners into the cohort using a combination of contingent and direct hire based on the role and the fit of the returner. The decision is usually let up to the hiring manager. This option provides flexibility for the returnship program.

You will need to decide what, if any, benefits you will offer the returner cohort. This can vary widely but often depends on the employment status of the returner. If they are a direct/permanent hire, they will obviously be given the standard benefits package. But there is some flexibility when it comes to benefits if the returner is hired through a returnship in a contingent role.

Name Your Returnship
You will need to brand your returnship by giving it a name. Ideally, this name will be associated with the company in some manner. For example, Tesla’s returnship program is called “Women Recharged”, Target has a returnship program called “Back on Target”. Get creative and brand your returnship appropriately.

Which Roles are Best?
You will need to designate the types of roles and the number of roles for the returner cohort. If this is your first time doing a returnship, 5-8 might be a good, manageable number. And then you will want to think about diversity within the company. Are there certain departments that need more diverse, female talent? This would be the ideal place to hire the returners provided there is a desire to implement and support a returnship program by the hiring managers and department leadership.

Format Job Descriptions
The job description is a vital part of any hiring process. This is especially true for Returnship opportunities. HP conducted a study that showed women tend to screen themselves out of the hiring process by only applying for roles that are a near 100% match to their skill set, while men are comfortable applying to roles that are a 60% or better match. LinkedIn expanded on this study by discovering that women applied to 20 percent fewer jobs than men and were 16 percent less likely to apply after viewing a job description.

These facts are troubling enough, but when you add into the mix a career break to raise a child or care for a loved one, it becomes clear that female Returners are facing significant struggles when trying to return to the workforce.

So while a job description can’t completely fix this issue, the right format for Returnship opportunities can go a long way towards increasing the number of applicants to your program. The key for the job descriptions for a Returnship is to emphasize that a resume gap is welcome, limit the required skills to 3 or 4 at most, and to mention any additional support that will be provided to the Returners.

Recruiting Expertise
Returners are a unique talent pool. As such, they require a unique recruiting process. Does your organization have the internal knowledge and expertise to source, screen, and hire Returners? Having the right approach with the right processes in place is key to a successful Returnship program.

Most Returnships last 12-16 weeks. But they can be longer or shorter depending on the size of the cohort, the types of roles filled, and the company’s available resources. Larger cohorts, more complex roles, and limited resources like formal training all lend themselves to a longer Returnship period. The key is to figure out the time frame needed to give the Returners the best chance for success.

Training is key to the success of any Returnship. There are different types of training that should be considered.

Job Training
How are you going to train the new hires on the specific duties of their job? Do you have videos? Will there be someone who is responsible for all of the job training? Will it be a team effort? What about career development once the returners have ramped up? The training piece is key and needs to be figured out before the Returnship starts.

Office Conduct 
This training covers expectations and acceptable behaviors in the workplace, verbal communication, appropriate business dress and grooming, time management, telephone skills, and general professional behavior.

Soft Skills
Findings by Carnegie Mellon Foundation and the Stanford Research Institute International found that 75% of long-term job success depends upon soft skills. Soft skill training includes communication, leadership, critical thinking, listening, adaptability, organization, teamwork, and punctuality.

Returnship Type
There are two basic types of returnships, a cohort-style returnship, and a rolling returnship. The cohort style is where a company hires a group of returners and they all start together on the same day. The cohort often goes through the entire returnship program together which is s=usually 12 to 16 weeks. At the end of that time, the company and the returners decide if there is a mutual interest in moving forward with full-time employment. The rolling returnship is where a company opens up positions for returners as they come available and hires returners individually after going through the interview and screening process.

Hiring Manager Buy-In
Do you have hiring managers who are supportive of returners and the unique perspective they bring? Without hiring managers who are fully committed to the program, it simply will not work.

Other items to consider

Spouse/Partner/Family Planning
Since most Returners are female, and often mothers, they are likely the one who has been taking on all of the domestic responsibilities at home. So, when they return to work, it can cause a major shift in responsibilities. This needs to be addressed ahead of time. Things like daycare, pick up and dropping off kids, meal preparation, grocery shopping, bills, etc. Who will take on these responsibilities? Do you hire help? Get groceries delivered instead of going to the store?

There are answers, but the returner and their family need to have this discussion and come up with a plan before they go back to work. We offer a Be Her Ally Workshop to help with this transition.

Internal Commitment
Undertaking a comprehensive, successful returnship program takes planning, resources, and buy-in at multiple levels. Does your company have these things in place? What would it take to get them in place? Is diversity and inclusion an integral part of the company? Who would own this initiative? These are all questions that need to be asked and answered before moving forward.


Returnships are changing the way companies hire diverse talent. And their impact is not only within the company’s talent acquisition efforts but across the entire organization and throughout the community. To put it simply, Returnships impact lives.

Women Back to Work is the leading provider of customized Full Service Returnship Programs for medium and large companies across the US and India.