WHEN Karen Willis quit her job as an advertising controller just before the birth of her first child in 1985, she assumed that her seven-year career at Lombard North Central, a finance house, was over. She wanted to be home while her children were small, and she knew of no way to keep the door open for her return. But at the end of 1986 a letter from the company spelled out an intriguing offer: Stay home with your children until 1992, then come back to work at your previous level.
Under the provisions of a new Return to Work plan, company officials said, women who had worked for Lombard for two years could apply for an extended leave to care for babies and toddlers.
Mrs. Willis was delighted. ``A lot of people would like to stay at home with their children,'' she says. ``This way you've got the assurance that in x number of years you can go back to work with the company.''
Lombard's plan is one of a small but growing number of career-break programs British companies are devising to serve a dual purpose: to help working parents and to stem the loss of trained employees.
A typical leave lasts five years, with some companies, such as Lombard, offering a possible two-year extension. Most firms also require participants to complete two weeks of paid work each year to maintain contacts and update skills, although at Lombard this is not mandatory.
``They're not strictly employees during their absence,'' explains Kay Lyne, Lombard's equal-opportunity officer, speaking of the 16 mothers now on leave. ``They're more like members of a club.''
As such, participants receive no salary or benefits, but are kept informed of activities and changes within the firm. If the company does not have a suitable opening available when a worker is ready to return, Ms. Lyne adds, ``we will keep them on the [plan] until we do.'' She expects an eventual enrollment of 50 to 60.
To working parents in the United States, a leave of several years to care for small children still seems a distant dream. Many American employers allow only six or eight weeks of leave after the birth of a baby. Even terms of the Parental and Medical Leave Act, now before Congress, have been cut from 18 weeks of unpaid leave to 10 weeks.
Yet here in England, career breaks have existed since 1981, when National Westminster Bank developed the first plan. Currently 135 workers are participating in NatWest's program. Five others have returned full time. ``The first two women, who came back in '86 and '87, have already received their promotions,'' says Anne Watts, manager of equal opportunities for the bank.
One of those returnees, Nicola Boyd, now serves as an assistant manager of a NatWest branch south of London. Mrs. Boyd began her leave after her daughter was born in 1983, returning for the required two weeks every year. After the birth of her son two years later, she worked two days a week. A nanny now cares for her children while she works full time.
``There's no doubt that I didn't stall my career,'' says Boyd. ``I'd do it the same way again. I don't regret having taken the time.''
NatWest divides its career-break plan into two programs. For staff members aiming for senior management, the bank guarantees an offer of reemployment at their previous level. It also provides a training program when a worker returns.
Under the second plan, open to workers with the potential for junior or middle management, the bank does not guarantee a job, but will consider participants for vacancies at the level at which they left. Applicants must have worked for the bank for five years, although most participants, Ms. Watts notes, have averaged 12 or 13 years of service. ``We can't possibly afford to waste all that training and experience,'' she says.
Other employers agree. The Cabinet Office offers its Domestic Absence Scheme to all permanent staff members who have completed one year of continuous service of 15 hours a week or more. About 14 staff members are on leave under the program.
Certain teaching districts also give breaks of two to three years, according to Linda Moseley, head of employee relations at the Confederation of British Industry. A returning teacher then works alongside another teacher for three months to ease the transition.
Despite the initial success of these career breaks, personnel specialists concede that many programs are still limited in scope, available to relatively few.
``They're very selective,'' Ms. Moseley acknowledges. ``But that's got to remain an employer's right.'' Although she is aware of ``no explicit resistance'' on the part of employers, Moseley notes that some returnees have encountered resentment. ``Men who have carried on working resent the fact that a woman can come back after a couple years and may even leapfrog over them.''
Moseley also expresses a personal concern. ``I just despair that it's going to be lip service. It's still very difficult to convince men that if you're going to take a few years off work, you're serious about your career.''
One way to minimize that problem is to broaden programs to include men as well as women - a step some companies are beginning to consider. Lombard, for one, is about to extend its plan to men with young children, to employees with elderly relatives, and ``even to people who want to sail around the world,'' Lyne says.
Dr. Rhona Rapaport of the Family Policy Study Center explains the advantage of a broader approach:
``The more it gets seen that people need breaks in their careers, regardless of their gender, the more likely it is for changes to be incorporated.'' When men participate, she adds, programs are taken more seriously.
For now, employers and participants alike are pronouncing the existing programs a success. ``It isn't an altruistic gesture,'' Moseley says firmly. ``It makes good economic sense.''
Lyne agrees. ``There's nothing to be negative about. Employers don't lose anything. The cost is virtually nil to run a scheme like this. I don't know of any reason not to do it.''