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Avoid the Harsh Penalties of Stepping Off the Career Track

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Following his controversial advice to women on raises, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella expressed a new concern recently:

“How do we get women to come back after they’ve taken a break?” he asked at a recent event in San Francisco where he discussed gender equality, along with the company’s Azure cloud services. As at many tech firms, men at Microsoft far outnumber women.

His recent comments, reported by CNET, followed his advice in early October that women in tech should not ask for raises but instead have faith the system would reward them. He later apologized amidst a backlash by women.

His latest remarks were a reminder of how few companies actually do have an effective plan to help employees transition back to work after taking time off for caregiving. Both women and men who step off the career track typically find they’re on their own.

So how do you make sure you can pull it off? Taking a few steps while you’re away from the paid workforce can help. None of these take much time but they can have a real impact on your career prospects and confidence.

  1. Be a connector. Hop onto LinkedIn for 15 minutes once a month and post a review of a former colleague you respect, share an interesting job opportunity with someone you know is looking, or add a comment on a past coworker’s blog. Set aside 30 minutes to check in with a former employee you once mentored by phone. Even if you have no time to meet in person, these steps can keep your network alive.
  2. Tackle a small (paid) quarterly project. It will be much easier to persuade an employer to hire you if you did some paid work in your field during a period of caregiving. Taking on a small consulting project you can do from home or even a short stint as a temp in your field every few months can give you some good talking points when you’re ready to interview again. It used to be hard to find interesting short-term work outside of creative fields, but professional services firms in many industries are now relying on contingent workers—temps, freelancers, or contractors—and there are plenty of freelance marketplaces and temp agencies that can help you find work.
  3. Choose volunteer work carefully. Doing charitable or pro bono work is, first and foremost, about giving back. But if you are choosing among several similar organizations that need help, picking one where you can tap into your highest- level professional skills or learn new ones will be a good way to keep your tool kit sharp as you work for a good cause.
  4. Consider a spousal IRA. One of the biggest fears many people have when not working is they will struggle financially as they get older. If you are married and your spouse is working, ask your financial planner if it makes sense to open one of these IRAs, designed for married people who are not doing paid work. (Your spouse must fund the account out of earned income.) Taking a concrete step to save will help you stay positive about your future. The more confident you remain, the more you will be able to negotiate your next opportunity from a position of strength.

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.