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Returning to Work After Having Kids? Honesty Is Best Policy

Returning to Work After Having Kids? Honesty Is Best Policy
Credit: Kittisak Jirasittichai/Shutterstock

Women who are re-entering the workforce after taking time off for family reasons are more likely to find jobs if, rather than trying to hide their resume gaps, are open about their reasons for being out of work, a new study suggests.

The research, which is set to appear in an upcoming issue of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, contradicts conventional wisdom that women hurt their chances of finding work if they spend time discussing their home lives.

Researchers said the study provides the first-ever evidence that women who conceal personal information dramatically lower their hiring prospects.

"Employers overwhelmingly preferred to hire candidates who provided information to explain a resume gap, regardless of content," Jennifer Bennett Shinall, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said in a statement."Any information that could flesh out a woman's job history and qualifications improved employment prospects relative to no explanation for an otherwise identical job candidate."

For the study, researchers had 3,022 subjects act as "potential employers" and choose between two job candidates, described as mostly similar except for their openness about a 10-year gap in their job histories. For some, the gap was explained with information, such as taking time off to raise children or to deal with a recent divorce. For others, no information about the gap was given.

The study's authors found that the women who gave personal information raised their chances of being hired by as much as 40 percentage points, compared to a comparable female candidate who provided no personal information. [See Related Story: Take Charge: How Women Can Raise Their Leadership Stock]

"The personal information gave no indication whether the woman would be a more or less productive employee," said Joni Hersch, the study's co-author and a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt. "Yet the number of people who preferred the woman who explained her resume gap was staggering."

The researchers said the results show that employers prefer known risks over unknown risks.

"It boils down to any explanation for your exit and your re-entering the workforce is better than no explanation," Shinall said.

The study's authors said that, unfortunately, many women are being advised to conceal that they stayed home to tend to family issues. Changing the mind-set behind communicating about personal issues would ultimately lead to more qualified candidates getting hired, the researchers said.

"We have a significant number of highly educated, highly qualified women who take a few years off to raise children, and want to come back into the labor market," Shinall said. "And the fact of the matter is they seem to be getting bad advice from recruiters and career websites urging them to pretend their private lives don't exist."

The researchers said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces employment discrimination laws, isn't helping women transition back into the working world with it's current guidelines. The guidelines discourage employers from asking about family matters.

The researchers proposed that the EEOC move away from the existing "don't ask, don't tell" guidance, to the reasonable-accommodation model already used for employees with disabilities.

"The idea behind reasonable accommodation is that there's an interactive process where the employer and employee have an honest conversation about each side's needs and wants," Hersch said. "This would prevent women from being fearful about giving information or asking for work-life balance modifications such as telecommuting or alternate work schedules."

The researchers suggested that this discussion take place during the interview process.

"If both parties are honest about each other's needs, it will help create a relationship that is productive and sustainable," Hersch said.

The study's authors said giving women and employers more freedom to discuss these issues will provide more motivation for qualified women to rejoin the workforce.

"If we start to encourage these types of conversations between employers and employees on an official level, it could lead to meaningful change in the quality of applicants, particularly in industries that have been so resistant to providing family-friendly work policies," Shinall said.

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.