Luring mom back to work

More firms are acting to keep up ties with prized workers who took leave


When Karin Cochran decided to leave Deloitte & Touche during her second pregnancy to become a full-time mother, it was not an easy choice.

She loved her job as a health care consultant, yet wanted to be home with her children. Still, she wondered whether her career would fall behind. So, she joined a new program by the financial services company to lure at-home mothers back when they're ready to return to work.

"That's the advantage of the program, [which is] to say, `You're not going to deteriorate when you're home and closing off the whole world to make this decision,'" said Cochran, 36, a mother of two in Cary, N.C., who left Deloitte in 2004.

It's hard enough for mothers to find a balance between work and family - with many leaving the workplace. A growing number of companies are making it easier for mothers who take time off to raise children to stay plugged in and re-enter the work force.

Employers such as Ernst & Young, Lehman Brothers, Deloitte & Touche and Booz Allen Hamilton are offering networking events, mentorship, training programs and freelance work to keep ex-employees tied to their firms.

"Our ultimate goal is to proactively work with every woman to find the right arrangement for her and her family, so they don't necessarily have to take long breaks and they don't have to leave the work force," said Kimberly Costa, a partner at accounting firm Ernst & Young's Baltimore office.

Companies say such efforts, which are open to men and women, recognize an age-old problem in corporate America of talent drain.

It also is less expensive for companies to retain workers than to find someone new. For instance, Deloitte & Touche spends $2,500 per person annually for its program to keep ex-workers in the loop. The cost of replacing an employee, however, is twice the worker's salary, the company said.

A study by the Center for Work-Life Policy last year, based on a survey of 2,443 women and 653 men, found that 37 percent of women take a short break from their career path, which is called "off-ramping." The women took an average of 2.2 years off.

Most women surveyed, 93 percent, said they want to return to work; yet just 74 percent succeed, according to the study. Only 5 percent go back to their former employers.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the nonprofit Center for Work-Life Policy and co-author of the study, said companies need to find ways to reduce barriers when women want to return to their careers, known as "on-ramping."

For women, employers' efforts to help them stay connected with their jobs can provide a smoother transition back into the workplace. They also can help alleviate the stigma attached to taking time off and create a workplace culture where work-life balance is encouraged and manageable, female executives and mothers say.

"It's really a push-pull going on. It's hard to balance everything. Most women feel pressure on the work front," said Lolita Carrico, a Los Angeles-based mother of two young sons who runs, an online community for working mothers.

"More workplaces are much more considerate of working moms and willing to work with them," Carrico says.

Deloitte & Touche launched a pilot program in 2004 that drew 28 participants, including Cochran, who left to raise children, take care of their parents or fulfill personal goals. The participants, most of whom are women, have up to five years to stay connected with the company via training, networking and freelance work assignments.

Because of its potential, last month Deloitte made its program, Personal Pursuits, available to all qualifying employees nationwide, said Cathy Benko, Deloitte's national managing director for women's initiatives.

Other companies say they're getting a great deal of interest from women and are seeing promising results.

Lehman Brothers invited former employees and other women who've been out of the work force to two recent networking events - one in New York in November and another in London in February. The sessions, which drew 121 participants, gave women a chance to meet top executives and get some career coaching, said Anne Erni, Lehman's chief diversity officer.

The company followed up by assigning recruiters to handle resumes from these "off-ramp" women and established e-mail addresses for the program. As a result, Lehman has hired at least a dozen women for the company's domestic and international offices, she said.

With most of these programs, employers do not promise that someone can return to her previous job, since the company may have had to fill the vacancy to address its business needs.

But Deloitte's Benko said program participants typically are high performers whom the company wants back.

DeAnne Aguirre, a senior vice president at consulting giant Booz Allen, acknowledged that work-life flexibility programs require financial resources and a commitment from top management. "It's a short-term cost but if in the long term it retains a more talented, diverse work force, it pays off," she said.

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