Viewed as a Dinosaur and Treated Like an Intern: The Challenges of Reentering the Workforce and the Elusive “Work-Life Balance”

Working in recruiting for most of my career has allowed me to discuss and learn about trends both from the employee and the employer perspective.  One recurring discussion has been “work-life balance” and reentering the workforce after choosing to take time off.  I will start with how I reentered the workforce, and what that experience taught me about employers’ expectations and the idealistic quest for “work-life balance.”

When I decided to reenter the work force ten years ago, it started with multiple conversations and introductions. Networking is imperative for those going back to work after taking time off.  If you are not networking, it will be very difficult to secure interviews because HR teams are unlikely to consider someone who is currently out of the workforce when they are already overwhelmed with applicants who don’t have breaks in their resumes. In their minds, candidates who have been consistently working are less likely to have skills-gaps and are more likely to be long-term employees than those who have taken time off.  This assumption pertains both to women and to men.

As a professional reentering the workforce, you have to make your own luck.  You have to network and be persistent when appropriate.  Learn to follow cues and be tenacious without being overbearing. If a prospective employer tells you “not now,” they usually mean it. If they say “stay in touch,” then do just that.  You have to be willing to put yourself out there.  When I started conversations with the firm that ultimately hired me, I was persistent.  I followed up on meetings, wrote thank you notes to everyone I met, and did everything short of begging for the job. I was probably older than most of the firm’s traditional candidates, but I had a few things working in my favor:  I had relevant past experience and had been successful in the past. So, although somewhat dated, I did have a track record that I could leverage. On top of that, I was professional, I dressed the part, I was up-to-date on the industry, and I did my homework. I did everything I could to mitigate any concerns they may have had about my viability as a candidate. What ultimately landed me the job, however, was my willingness to take the role on a trial basis for three months. Despite my qualifications, I knew I would have to prove myself and I was okay with that.

Humility is key for candidates reentering the workforce because, very often, you’re going to have to take a step back or work on a contingent basis to reaffirm your abilities. When I started the three month trial period, I thought work-life balance would be a possibility.  I can state categorically, however, that if you want to be successful in rebooting your career, then forget the expression “work-life balance,” especially if you are in a competitive industry.  Execution is all firms really care about: getting the job done.

I swallowed my pride when I went back to work.  I was viewed as a dinosaur and treated like an intern. I was dropped into a workplace that looked very different from the environment that I remembered (To say that fax machines were cutting edge when I stopped working is an understatement). My new job revolved around technology that had passed me by while I was taking time off to raise my children. I knew I would have to learn these new technologies quickly in order to be successful in this new environment, and I did just that. I was humbled on a regular basis.  And this advice is for everyone: not just the old, the young, the female, or the diversity candidates, but really anyone who wants to be successful. It takes hard work and, while some luck helps, at the end of the day you have to be respected for the successes you’ve achieved.  I worked at that company for a year and proved myself over and over again.  No task was too small for me to take on. If I wanted to cry my eyes out because of slights and humiliations, I took it outside and only to my closest friends.

After I had worked for a year and proven myself, I was able to start interviewing at firms where my age and experience were more in line with what I was looking for.  As a recruiter, I don’t encourage job hopping but, in my case, it was the right thing to do because it got me back up to the level at which I wanted to be.  I will always be grateful for the opportunity that first company gave me to reboot my career. The fact that it was a very sharp-elbowed environment was also beneficial for me because it forced me to prove myself over and over again, which enabled me to develop an impressive track record that I could point to when I started interviewing for more senior roles at other firms. My first job after taking time off was a supremely challenging experience but, looking back, it underscores my belief that, if you are serious about going back to work after taking time off, you should be prepared to do whatever it takes to regain momentum.

This reflection leads me to the idealistic idea of “work-life balance.” I was recently chatting with a 2013 MBA graduate from one of the top three universities about career options. When she conveyed to me how important “work-life balance” was to her, I was a bit perplexed.  My thinking was: you have just spent a significant amount of money and time to get an advanced degree and you are already looking to streamline your work hours. I will admit that, when I first went back to work, I was probably thinking the same thing.  I have four children, and, at the time, the youngest was just starting school. I thought it would be great to have Fridays off and leave the office by 5pm.  That idea was quickly quelled due to the demanding imperatives of having to prove myself to my new employer. After ten years of proving myself, I can only now really enjoy some flexibility in how I work; but even that privilege is only because my company knows I will get the job done.  I have always been one of the first ones in the office and one of the last to leave.  I have always exceeded targets, deadlines, or tasks that have been put in front of me.

I believe that work-life balance is something an employee has to earn.  I work from home on Friday because I have earned the right to work from home.  I have created the work-life balance over time, but it was never handed to me. In my mind, “work-life balance” is not a concept that employees should feel entitled to have. It should be a reward that employees receive once they have really demonstrated their value to their company and have earned their employer’s trust. From my observations, the employees who walk in the door expecting their new employer to give them privileges and flexibility never go as far in their careers as the employees who approach their jobs with hard work and dedication. Everyone appreciates time off and flexibility, but the employees who consistently make it a focus of their day to day will never be the most successful people in the room.

My experience has been that most employers want to be more inclusive.  They want diverse teams comprised of women, minorities and those professionals looking to reenter the workforce.  They recognize that a firm comprised of multiple backgrounds is very often the more productive and cutting edge one.  That being said, they also have to support a bottom line and everyone on the team has to perform.  Unless you come in as a part-time employee, it is not fair to expect your peers to pick up your slack when you’re feeling the need for some work-life balance.  My colleagues know there is almost nothing that I ask of them that I am not willing to do myself and that we are all focused on the same goal.  Hard work and execution are really the only ways to achieve success in the corporate world.  Firms will provide work-life balance to those employees who have proven themselves. Usually the work-life balance might mean working remotely one or two days a week…but working is still implied.

It behooves companies to identify the employees they want to keep for the long term and therefore offer flexibility to accommodate life’s changes, like having children or taking care of an aging parent.  The employee, however, can’t lead with “work-life balance” if they are looking to work in a competitive industry and career; it is a privilege to be earned, not an entitlement to be expected. The same goes for reentering the workforce: swallow your pride and plan on getting pummeled for the first year. For me, it has been worth the bruises.

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