Workday’s Chief Diversity Officer Explores How Returnship Programs, Mentorship Empower Employees - Senior Executive

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DEI Leaders 8 min

Workday’s Chief Diversity Officer Explores How Returnship Programs, Mentorship Empower Employees

Workday’s chief diversity officer shares what she’s learned as a mentor of the software company’s returnship program.

by Taylor Odisho on May 24, 2023


  • The Workday Returnship Program launched in 2018 after leadership recognized there was a company- and industry-wide gap in how they support employees returning to work after extended leaves.

  • Employees hired through the program are matched with a mentor, participate in monthly check-ins, have access to professional development workshops, and are connected to Workday’s Employee Belonging Councils.

  • Carin Taylor, Workday’s chief diversity officer, says the organization is trying to remove the need for a degree and embrace career gaps during hiring.

While returning to work after an extended leave of absence poses challenges for employees at every level, this transition can be particularly demanding for individuals returning from parental leave, caregiving responsibilities, family emergencies, or medical leave. As chief diversity officers, there’s a way you can make the adjustment process easier: returnship programs. 

Software company Workday launched its returnship program in September 2018 to comprehensively address the need for stronger support for parents and caregivers returning from 18 months or more of leave. It has since expanded. The four-month, paid program offers training, support, and mentorship to facilitate a successful career relaunch. The returnship program is part of Opportunity Onramps, Workday’s workplace development plan to support job seekers from nontraditional backgrounds. 

“We believe that talent is everywhere but opportunity is not — a career gap on someone’s resume should not be a barrier to reentering the workforce,” says Carin Taylor, the chief diversity officer at Workday.

Read on for an edited excerpt of our exclusive interview with Taylor as she offers insight into the inner workings of the Workday Returnship Program and how it has empowered more than 50 employees to return to work. She also explains the significance of mentorship for creating more inclusive work cultures. 

Senior Executive Media: What was the inspiration behind creating the Workday Returnship Program?

Carin Taylor: What we recognized was there was talent trying to get back into the workplace, not necessarily at Workday, but in general. Workday’s approach was this is great talent that’s already out there. It’s experienced talent as well, and it’s talent that’s most likely going to ramp up much more quickly in corporate America [because] they had already been here and were not new to the workplace. We recognized right off the bat that there was talent that had skills we could leverage and that’s why we decided to open the returnship program.

We have and will continue to expand our efforts, looking for new ways to support returners. An example of this is our partnership with Upwardly Global, which aims to support refugees and asylum seekers reentering the workforce in the U.S. We [also] partner with iRelaunch, Women Returners in Europe, Women Back to Work, Path Forward, and more. 

Senior Executive Media: Can you share more about what exactly the returnship program entails?

Carin Taylor: One of the focuses [of the returnship program] is finding pathways for career returners. The way we think about returners is those who have been out of the workplace for at least one-and-a-half years and they’re looking to relaunch their career. Our returnship program started several years ago with a focus on caregivers. Since then, it has expanded to all individuals who have stepped away from the workforce for any reason, any life circumstance.

We like to look at it as a broad talent pool for us because one of the things that we recognize is that people leave the workforce for a temporary time, but they’re gaining skills that could be helpful when they return to work, and we embrace these new skills. It could be around communication or even project management…a mom might project manage her family; there’s a skill there that she really gets. Planning, scheduling, creating strategies — all those things are values that are then applicable to the workforce.

As part of our returnship program, we offer a support system to help ensure program participants’ reentry into the workforce is as smooth as possible. Employees hired through the program are matched with a mentor, participate in monthly check-ins, have access to professional development workshops, and are connected to our Employee Belonging Council (EBC) community, which includes our Families @ Workday EBC. We have intentionally created a support system of understanding to help build robust connections for long-term success at Workday.

Senior Executive Media: How frequently does the returnship program run?   

Carin Taylor: We host cohorts for our returnship program multiple times a year — these align with our hiring demand and business needs. Additionally, through our Opportunity Onramps program, any individual who is considered a ‘returner’ to the professional workforce can be hired at any time. 

In addition to hiring returners through our returnship program, we have established intentional, internal training for our recruitment team and hiring managers to help assess talent, looking beyond a gap in a resume.

Senior Executive Media: What does the process look like in selecting Workday Returnship Program participants?

Carin Taylor: It’s like an interview program. There’s an interview process. There are several organizations we partner with to look for caregivers or other folks within our Opportunity Onramps programs. We let the folks know that we have jobs available, and then they apply for them. We look for people like we do most of our jobs around skills, and we’re probably just a little bit more flexible. I’m looking deeper around the gap that they’ve had. Then it’s the normal interview process and [similar to] a normal internship program. It’s very similar to a standard hiring process. 

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Senior Executive Media: What are some of the lessons Workday has learned in running the returnship program? 

Carin Taylor: A couple of the lessons that we’ve learned is that there’s a lot of great talent out there that we should be open to looking at differently. Removing the degree requirement from a lot of our jobs is a simple way for us to understand that we can remove barriers to entry… We had the assumption that because that gap was there, [returning employees] wouldn’t be as great. But we are finding that they are. Not only are they great employees, but they are ramping up a lot more quickly than people who have not been in the workforce before. 

When I look at our learnings around the importance of connection and mentorship, I would say that was an important connection for us as well — to think about the support this unique talent was going to need coming into the workplace. 

In reference to general lessons learned around challenges, I would say it’s hard to target an audience of caregivers. How do you articulate a returner? …That’s a really big pool of people. You have to get intentional about how marketing is done to reach a very, very specific audience.

“We had the assumption that because that gap was there, [returning employees] wouldn’t be as great, but we are finding that they are. Not only are they great employees, but they are ramping up a lot more quickly than people who have not been in the workforce before.”

Carin Taylor

– Carin Taylor, Chief Diversity Officer at Workday


Senior Executive Media: You said that you recognized employees’ needs through the program. Can you explain what some of those needs are and the measures you took to address them?

Carin Taylor: We think about that gap in your career, and we think about the skills needed for you to [return to work]. We look at the program around those skills that you are going to need and then how we integrate you into the workplace, and that’s where the focus is. The thing that sticks out the most for me is connections. How do we ensure that people can make the right connections when they get into the workplace? That was the gap because whether you’re out of the workplace for a year and a half or five years, things have changed. That gap of knowledge was really the biggest thing and as we connect people to mentors, for example, that’s how we’re generally closing that gap. We also asked employees as they were returning, ‘What are their needs?’ We listen to their voice as a part of that conversation to better understand…and we try to meet them where they are.

Senior Executive Media: As the chief diversity officer, what is your role in running the returnship program? 

Carin Taylor: I don’t have a role in running the program, but where I participate is as a mentor [for one year]. Whenever the [employee business councils] come to me, they [ask], ‘Carin, will you be a mentor?’ and 100% of the time I say yes, and that’s where I participate… I feel [mentorship is] one of the most valuable ways in which you can connect with a senior leader. 

When I participate or some of our other senior leaders participate in these programs, it’s important to our employees. To know that you are paired up with a chief diversity officer, not only does it allow me to get that experience, but I also learn from our employees. I can hear firsthand what their challenges are, their successes, where they are struggling, and where they are having wins. It bridges the gap between leadership and our employees. For me, personally, it’s one of the best ways that I can give back to our workmates here, and all it requires is time.

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