Long reads

The best of HR: O2 focused on getting mothers back into work and scooped the CIPD People Management Award for diversity and inclusion

24 Oct 2019 By Elizabeth Howlett

A narrow talent pool meant the mobile network operator was struggling to fill roles – so it honed in on a often-forgotten part of the labour market

Helping mothers back into the workplace is recognised as a powerful way to encourage inclusion and fill talent gaps. But making that happen in reality requires concerted effort – which is why O2’s dedication and vision impressed the judges, as it took advantage of a business need to pilot a whole new approach.

In 2016, the mobile network operator’s technical arm was suffering a severe skills shortage exacerbated by a narrow talent pool. Noting its reputation as a flexible employer and her own experience as a working mother, chief HR officer and chief of staff Ann Pickering saw a chance to think laterally. “We knew there were a lot of talented women out there who had taken a career break and were finding it difficult to get back in the workplace,” she says. “We decided to turn that on its head and see it as an opportunity. Just because you’ve had a baby doesn’t mean you forget everything you’ve learned.” 


Find out more about the 2019 People Management Award winners and register your interest for 2020

The career returners programme was launched the same year, targeting highly qualified women who had been out of the workplace for a minimum of two years with the offer of a flexible role and the support they needed to return to work. The business was overwhelmed with applicants, but it decided to concentrate initially on a modest intake, putting in place a buddy system to help its new hires with self-confidence.

Within three months, the initiative had increased gender representation in the business area by 3 per cent, and 80 per cent of the women were retained in the company – a figure that rose to 100 per cent in its second year.

“We have brought in some great women, working in areas where we have found it difficult to recruit. It’s been a huge success,” says Pickering. “Now we’re planning the next one.”

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