Re-Engaging Talent

14th March 2018

Posted In: The Topic

Research conducted by DCU Business School has found that organisations that view maternity leave as a brief interlude in a woman’s career are the most successful in retaining high potential female employees post-maternity leave. The research report just released is titled: Re-Engaging Talent Post- Maternity Leave: Enablers and Barriers to Positive Reintegration.

Led by Dr Yseult Freeney, Dr Lisa van der Werff and Professor David Collings of the DCU Leadership and Talent Institute, and sponsored by HR Search, it is the first study of its kind in Ireland to explore the perspectives of mothers, managers and organisations.

Commenting on the research, Dr. Yseult Freeney, Associate Professor in Organisational Psychology in DCU Business School, said: “Our research shows that maternity leave forms a critical juncture for many women in their careers. The transition back to work is laden with challenges that can lead to career derailment when the return is not managed effectively. Fuelling this are views of maternity leave as a major disruption rather than a brief interlude, which can be conscious or unconscious.

Managers who take a longer term view often signal greater support to returners who, as a result, feel more valued and are far more likely to positively reintegrate into the organisation. Ultimately, positive returns are associated with a renewed focus on careers and a strengthened relationship with the organisation.”

Over the past number of decades, the talent agenda has become one of the most pressing challenges for organisational and HR leaders alike. There has been an increasing realisation that building effective talent pipelines is central to the delivery of the strategic agendas of organisations. However, there is little evidence that organisations have been successful in building these talent pipelines. For example, PWC’s annual CEO pulse surveys identify the lack of availability of key skills as a key constraint on firms’ ability to deliver on their strategic agenda year on year.1 Indeed, a 2016 report by Mercer reported that 85 per cent of organisations felt their talent management programmes needed a complete overhaul.2

Academic research has established that parental responsibilities have a significant impact on female career progression.3 In contrast, the top performing companies in McKinsey’s research on Women in the Workplace have targeted interventions to facilitate parents in the workplace. They are more than twice as likely as those at the bottom of the distribution to offer emergency backup childcare services; three times as likely to offer on-site childcare; and more likely to offer extended maternity and paternity leave, as well as programs to smooth the transition to and from extended leave.

The DCU research report identified the return to work after maternity leave as a key transition point, which can derail the careers of high potential female talent. The results presented in the current report speak directly to this question.

It finds that where line managers and/or the organisation viewed maternity leave as a brief interlude in the individual’s long-term career, returning mothers reported a positive transition back to the workplace. Where maternity leave was viewed as a major disruption, negative experiences were more common.

Despite the fact the women interviewed* had been identified as high potential employees, three issues were highlighted: career derailment, unconscious biases amongst colleagues and a deterioration of professional relationships. In each case, these issues were compounded by a lack of open and transparent communication between the returner and their line manager.

Many positive stories were also reflected; with positive reintegration to the workplace attributed to women feeling valued, the enrichment of professional relationships and the renewed focus that working women bring to managing their work.

Best practice identified include: organisations taking a longer term view of a woman’s career; implementing line manager training to support the transition back to work; developing a role model system enabling women to share experiences; permitting phased return and employing flexible and agile practices for all, not just women.

Poor practices include: making assumptions (returning women, line managers and work colleagues) about intentions or motivations. This is compounded by poor communication; unconscious bias, or the perception that returning women will be less engaged in their work; curtailing opportunities for involvement in meaningful projects or promotions; and neglecting logistics such as IT and desks before return.

You can read the full report here>>

*Over 300 women, the HR Director and line managers in 28 major organisations were interviewed in this report. The sectors represented include Banking, Finance and Insurance; Professional Services, Telecommunications and Technology, Pharmaceuticals; Aviation and Logistics and Public Sector/Semi-State Organisations.



3.Vinkenburg, C. J., Van Engen, M. L., & Peters, P. 2015. Promoting new norms and true flexibility: Sustainability in combining career and care. In A.DeVos & B.I.J.M. Van der Heijden (Eds.), Handbook of research on sustainable careers: 131-145, Edward Elgar Publications.