08/22/2013 09:43 am ET Updated Oct 22, 2013

How Organizations Can Take Advantage of Employees Who 'Opt Out'

Opting out, leaning in, whatever verbiage you want to use or perspective you want to take, Houston -- we have a problem!

There has certainly been a lot of chatter out there with articles, blogs and tweets about women and their issues surrounding working or staying at home to raise children and then losing ground if and when they determine to "step back in."

While it's not my place to address how women (or men, for that matter) should act within their personal and professional lives, I can talk about how businesses can and should take a closer look at this issue and determine what their stake in all of this might be.

Some facts to consider:

  • Among the employed population 25 and older, 37% of women have attained a bachelor's degree or more as of 2010, compared with 35% of men, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Assumption: We will have more college-educated women in the workforce than men as time proceeds.
  • Assumption: More women are in the workforce and the issue of women deciding to 'opt out' for a period of time will undoubtedly affect the labor force.
  • Assumption: Women have lost ground in terms of seniority, pay and perhaps even education and technological advances, and this is affecting their career status.

How does this relate to total rewards, you ask? Based on these numbers, it appears that a typical business's talent pool could consist of more women than men; that almost 40% of these women are highly-educated, a trait highly valued in a today's competitive talent market; and almost certainly, a number of them will opt-out of the workforce. For some, that will be it. They may never decide to come back. For others, they will choose to return, but to what? What role does a business have (or want to have) to keep those women engaged and up to speed so that when they do come back (and some surely will) they are ready to hit the ground running. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett describes in her book, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, many women are lost on re-entry, and companies miss the chance to leverage this talent pool.

If you work for an organization that has already made an investment in one of these individuals, it's worth considering a program that helps initiate "re-entry." What you come away with are employees that will need minimal training and already have loyalty to your organization. There's also a pretty fair chance that they will be engaged as well.

That isn't to say no one is taking advantage of the opportunity this labor pool provides. There are companies that have initiated programs to re-engage the talent they had previously spent critical time and money investing in. General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Goldman Sachs, Sara Lee and Ernst & Young have all put programs together to keep the talent that "off ramp" engaged enough so when they do return, they're more likely to do so with their former employers, which leads to time and money saved in terms of not having to replace existing talent.

WorldatWork's Survey on Workplace Flexibility 2011 (BTW, the updated survey will be ready in October) showed only 19% of responding organizations offered this form of flexibility to some or all of their employees. This is a missed opportunity for organizations, especially as they fight for talent these days. It may behoove them to consider the talent that they had and figure out a way to re-engage them before someone else snatches them up.

Sometimes these initiatives are called alumni groups or returnship programs. It doesn't really matter what you call them, but it's a way to keep them up to speed with your organization and even to the advances in your profession.

The bottom line for organizations is a desire to have a workforce that is engaged and loyal to their business, knows the business and has a vested interest in a company that has made them feel valued enough to keep in touch while they were gone. And this shouldn't be a women-only program, but for all talent that "steps off" for a period of time. You want to make sure you get first dibs when it's time to come back.