“Career Breaks In PR Should Be Part Of Inclusivity Policy”

(MENAFN- PRovoke) LONDON - A roundtable discussion held by the Company of Communicators – part of the City of London's“livery” group of trade associations – concluded that career breaks by PR practitioners should be normalised by recruiters and hiring managers, rather than stigmatised.

The wide-ranging discussion by agency leaders, in-house professionals and recruiters focused on women having breaks in their career to have and raise children, as well as covering breaks for physical and mental health
reasons, caring responsibilities, bereavement, and extended sabbaticals or other“CV/resumé gaps” between roles.

Former BBC News journalist Rachel Schofield – who was with the corporation for more than 17 years before becoming a career coach in 2021 – kicked off the discussion by saying many women who had taken a career break of any length worried about how to“explain or justify” it when they were trying to return to work.

“Applying for jobs in a formal way doesn't work because the computer says no, and hiring managers say no: one of five say they would still reject anyone with a career break. These women are full of energy
and are great candidates, but are finding it challenging.”

Schofield cited new research from Career Returners (formerly Women Returners) showing the 'Career Break Penalty' is widespread – 92% of (mainly) women say they have found it challenging to return to a professional role and 64% have found it extremely challenging; 40% say recruiter bias against career breaks is the biggest problem they have faced.

“How can recruiters have a conversation with clients about a career break being a positive asset? You can put together a beautifully-crafted message and get ready to talk about it compellingly, but you need receptive ears at the end. We need to get to the point where hiring managers will accept that what you have been doing counts.”

Grayling UK CEO Heather Blundell said the PR industry
needed to challenge itself around this bias, and not just when looking at mothers who had taken time away from their career:“I recently interviewed a man with a two-year career break. A few years ago I would have asked what happened in that gap, but it's actually none of my business – it's the same as asking women if they are going to have a baby.”

She added:“I hope post-Covid hybrid and flexible working have opened up opportunities for women who I have seen dropping out of the profession over the past 20 years, or taking steps sideways or back because they couldn't make it work. I watch women come back to the workplace after mat leave and they are more effective and focused, because they can't be late for nursery.”

Blundell said there was still stigma in agencies around parental/child-raising breaks, and this also showed itself in the willingness of men to take paternity leave:“I've worked in agencies with generous pat leave and often men don't take it all, or spread it out. I've had candid conversations where they say if they take four months out they will be overlooked for promotion. Until we have more men feeling able to take a career break and full paternity leave, that stigma will continue.”

She also touched on other reasons for career breaks, such as taking time out to care for elderly or ill parents, or after bereavement:“There are so many different points where people might need time off work, and as employer the responsibility I have in those situations is to be high-support, and look at how we might shape returnships.”

Independent corporate and crisis consultant Liam Herbert, who has held leadership positions at Rud Pedersen and Chelgate, agreed:“We feel a lot more now that people have a life outside the office. I was made redundant in the years before it was 'popular' and had a career break when my father died, and I hope those experiences have influenced how I've worked in the organisations I've worked for.”

Blundell said proper support for returners – including working with organisations such as PR Mums – was essential:“One woman who had taken a lot of time off was one of the best hires I've ever made – she brought tremendous energy
and experience and we fully supported her with training – you can't just recruit people after a break and hope for the best.”

At corporate affairs headhunter Madlin Hanna, director Miriam Hanna said the vast majority of hiring managers still don't like gaps: "They don't like seeing them and want over-explanation. We're starting to put this in same camp as disclosing current salaries, which in some US states are illegal to disclose. If companies have two good candidates and it comes down to the nitty gritty, the person without a gap will be preferred, as they are viewed as less risky.”

Another comms recruitment leader, Ellwood Atfield executive chairman Gavin Ellwood, who has previously taken a career break, agreed it was important to challenge the stigma:“One of the challenges is how we make [hiring managers] feel out of step, behind the curve and old-fashioned, and another is how we empower people returning to work.

“You can have a loss of confidence; for the individual it can feel like you've been out of the market
and the whole scene has moved on, but it actually feels much larger for them than it does for everyone else they are working with. There's a better, kinder and more humane way to interview someone and to find out if someone is the best person for the job.”

Former royal press secretary Patrick Harrison, now a partner at Highgate, pointed out that sabbaticals – effectively a sanctioned career break with less stigma – were becoming increasingly popular:“We've been looking at how we enact our values on a day-to-day basis and that includes creating an official sabbatical policy, which bubbled up to the top as something people cared about a lot.”

MATT PR founder Aceil Haddad – who set up the agency in 2021 after being sacked while on maternity leave and has also led comms at campaigning organisation Pregnant then Screwed – agreed that if you“changed 'maternity leave' to 'sabbatical' on a CV, it would have a transformational effect. We should be looking more at values and characteristics.”

However, Chartered Banker Institute head of public affairs, policy and communications Matthew Ball sounded a note of caution:“We have to be a bit careful about how people use the term sabbatical. I've known colleagues who have developed health
conditions and have said they are going on sabbatical. That says to me there is still too much stigma around health
breaks – we're all going to be working longer until we're older, and it would be nice if people could talk openly about health
issues rather than hide behind sabbaticals.”

DRD Partnership founder and partner Claire Davidson said the agency had changed the way it approached recruitment to overcome career break stigma:“If someone asks why you took two years off, the rest of the CV can go by the wayside. We've had a lot of male and female returners and we've consciously not gone through the gaps: the final 29 candidates for one role have all had a break.

“We use a formula to see certain things in their CV, and brief them about the kind of conversations we will have, focused on what they have done, not what they haven't. It has massively changed how we recruit. After all, we don't want to create clones of ourselves, we want to be find new people and innovative approaches.”

Madeleine Weightman, co-founder of The Work Crowd, agreed that recruiters and hiring managers needed a new approach:“We need a fresh perspective with recruitment. People are too fixed and risk-averse – if they start thinking differently and focusing on values, thinking and what that person brings, they can hire different talent, bringing new ideas, energy
and diversity.”

Reuben Sinclair head of PR and communications recruitment Alexandra Stevens said she was dismayed to have returned from a year's maternity leave to find nothing has changed in terms of the industry
's attitude towards breaks, and said career breaks needed to be viewed as an integral part of inclusive recruitment and policies.

“We need to be looking at this with our EDI hats on,” she said.“It's another bias that we need to be getting rid of in our interview processes. We don't have bias now against gender and ethnicity, and we need to include returners and career breaks in that conversation. With a fair and inclusive recruitment process, with set questions for everyone, the conversation around career breaks wouldn't come up and would probably solve some diversity issues in the industry

F1 Recruitment executive chair and founder Amanda Fone said ageism in the workplace was an issue that was coming to the fore as part of the Political
agenda as it was a priority for the UK Labour Party – anticipated to form the next government
– and this was a useful angle for discussions about the destigmatisation of career breaks:“Age is a protected characteristic and we need to ride on that, because we've found the average age of returners through our 11-year Back2businessship programme is 46. We have to encourage people who are hiring to think completely differently because they are missing out. There's a huge amount of work to do and we need to change the language around career breaks.”

The increasing use of AI to skim applications and CVs, with a built-in bias against breaks, was also discussed, with DRD Partnership partner Jon McLeod saying:“AI recruitment is biased and a bigots' soup that we should have nothing to do with – it's not just a process or crossing people off a list.”

Company of Communicators master Sally Sykes, a health
care communications specialist for much of her career, said having worked for the NHS during the pandemic there was another good reason for normalising career breaks:“There's a level of fatigue people just haven't had before. From a societal acceptance point of view, we have seen people out of the workplace during furlough and also accelerated hybrid and flexible working, and I think few in our profession will go back.”

Summing up the conversation, Schofield said the bigger societal picture around diversity and flexible working – and the changing view of what a 'career' means to younger employees – was encouraging in the long term:“We want different people at different stages of their lives, with different experiences, to add richness to the workforce.

“This isn't just a conversation about women and flexible working – a 'wiggly' career is going to be more normal, especially as Gen Z have different expectations, and they will feed into this discussion.”

Schofield said the biggest challenge was how to make a difference in the shorter term, and she posed a number of questions for hiring managers:“Are you using skills-based hiring? Where are you positioning your job ads? Are you saying you welcome career breaks? Can you support a returnship hire? Do you have buy-in from senior leadership? Are you tracking people who went on mat leave and never came back?

“I'm optimistic but it will take time, so we need to think about what we can do in small ways in our own organisations.”



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