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Employers Discuss Running a Returner Programme during the Pandemic

The last few months may have presented the most unprecedented times for decades but it provides an amazing opportunity for those companies that have the courage to continue with returner programmes” Sarah McKinlay, Global Head of Recruitment, dunnhumby


In late June 2020 Women Returners hosted a virtual Networking Event for 50 current and prospective returner employers on the topic of Returner Programmes during the Pandemic.

The aims of the event were to share the learnings of three employers with experience of running a returner programme within the current environment, and to provide an opportunity for informal employer discussions in break-out groups.

Since 2014 strong foundations have been laid in the UK for tackling the career break penalty and harnessing the talents of career returners: from 3 returner employers in 2014 there were over 100 in 2019. However this is a critical juncture. Various studies have shown that the coronavirus crisis is disproportionately affecting female employment. Women Returners is keen to promote information-sharing between organisations to ensure that returner programmes, alongside other forms of diversity recruitment, don’t fall off the organisational agenda.

Contributing Employers

The impressive Employer Panel generously shared their experiences of launching returner programmes and on-boarding returners during the pandemic: 

  • Tace Heuston, Head of Learning & Development EMEA, J.P. Morgan Asset Management. Tace is the Programme Manager on J.P. Morgan’s ReEntry Program EMEA, now in its 5th year, in Bournemouth, Glasgow and Dublin. The 2020 returnship programme started virtually in May, after a 6 week postponement, and was just past the halfway mark in later June. The Career Returners Coaching Programme is being delivered online in 3 separate cohorts by Women Returners.
  • Sarah McKinlay, Global Head of Recruitment, dunnhumby. Sarah is co-Programme Manager on dunnhumby’s first Returner Programme. The programme advertising launched in April 2020 with a virtual launch event, co-hosted with Women Returners. They are recruiting virtually for a 5-month returnship programme starting in September.
  • Stephanie Marshall, Head of EMEA Talent Acquisition, Fidelity International. Stephanie is the Programme Manager of Fidelity’s New Horizons Returner Programme. Fidelity has run a number of returnships in London, Surrey and Ireland since 2017 and are participating in the pilot Diversity Project: Cross-Company Returner Programme in London. The 6-month returnship began in June and is running virtually. The Career Returners Coaching Programme is being delivered online in cross-company peer group cohorts by Women Returners.

Employer Top-Line Insights

  • Returner programmes can be equally successful during the pandemic
    • The programme so far is going fantastically well
    • Our managers were blown away with the calibre of the returner candidates
  • Home working provides an opportunity for employers to demonstrate their personality and company culture
    • The event showcased our new normal, working from home, and felt very natural and authentic
  • You need to be brave to launch a programme as it can feel daunting
    • We approached the virtual launch event with trepidation as a lot could have gone wrong. We just needed courage to do it.

Employer Advice

1.Attraction and Promotion

  • Virtual engagement events are very effective. Turnout is typically higher than for in-person events; there is no room space constraint; business managers have greater availability and less of their time is required.
    • By doing a dry run with the technology, good preparation with the dunnhumby team and a focus on advertising in partnership with Women Returners, the event and attendance surpassed our expectations. It’s the first event I’ve run with no drop-outs
  • Returners are still engaged and interested in returning to work, despite current challenges with home-schooling and caring responsibilities
    • We were concerned that returning mothers wouldn’t have time to attend the event and apply. However we received around 80 applications for our five roles and the team have been thrilled by the quality of the individuals, their previous experience, their thirst for continuous development whilst they’ve been on a career break and their determination to return to the workplace.” 

2.Assessment and Roles

  • Video interviews work well, now both returners and hiring managers have adjusted to virtual conversations
    • Any concerns we had about virtual interviews have now faded away. People have brought their whole selves to the interviews 
  • Some role adaptation may be needed for virtual working
    • Regulatory roles were changed to be more project based for the virtual environment


  • Extensive communication with returners before their start date is particularly important at the moment
    • We had bi-weekly calls with the returners before they started. This was key to putting them at ease and putting their minds at rest that many managers are in the same boat [with children at home] and that we will make allowances for home-schooling and childcare
    • We had a lot of pre-start calls to answer any questions and gave help with setting up technology.”
  • Communication with line managers is equally important
    • We regularly spoke to the managers about how to make it work and to make sure they were making the returners feel comfortable

4. On-boarding and Programme Support

  • Programme Managers need to be more available than usual
    • We have given this cohort and their managers more support. We have put in weekly Office Hours for both returners and their line managers, so they have the option to check in, with 121s if needed
  • Returners can still develop strong peer support in a remote cohort
    • Even though the programme is virtual, the returners have bonded well as a cohort
  • A wrapper of support can smooth the transition back to work
    • Our returners have buddies, mentors, programme managers and Women Returners Coaching. The programme sponsor is very active. They have Welcome Packs and FAQs.  They feel there is a lot of support there for them
    • The virtual [Women Returners] coaching has been fantastic for the returners
  • Networking needs to be planned in
    • The programme sponsor has organised networking sessions with the business”
    • The returners were concerned about having face time, so we have set up networking meetings so they can meet other employees virtually

Overall the message was that it is not only possible but can be hugely positive to run a returner programme at this time.


If you’d like consulting, advertising and coaching support with launching a returner programme, please contact Women Returners on