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Finding the right incentive at work -- after childbirth

By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washingtonpost
Thursday, April 22, 2010; 11:37 AM

Hi Lily, I have a 6-month-old baby and I returned to work about 6 weeks ago. I was lucky to have 4.5 months of maternity leave (combination of sick and annual leave as well as some unpaid time off). I had a particularly rough delivery and a recovery which made it necessary to take at least that amount of time off. I have been lucky enough to have a supportive work place in terms of flexible working hours and teleworking options, and my boss has been pretty supportive in the past and also during my maternity leave. However, I can't help but feel that I'm somehow being penalized for being on maternity leave - - projects I previously managed were re-assigned to others (I thought it was just temporary but found it was a permanent change) and I feel as if I'm being given the projects nobody else wants. I've been working here for 7 years and had gotten to the point where I could talk to my boss about which projects I was interested in and which I'd rather not deal with, most of which he respected. But now I feel all that has changed and I have to 'work my way up' all over again. I can't help but think this is unfair, especially when I wasn't particularly motivated to come back to work because of my young baby. The projects which I found so rewarding were really the only things keeping me going, and now those aren't even there. Am I justified in feeling somehow that I shouldn't be penalized for maternity leave?

It is fair to say that the decline in the quality of your assignments is related to your recent maternity leave. Given the supportiveness of your boss in the past, however, including during your time away from work, I would not assume retaliatory intent.

While you were out, your boss had no choice but to reassign your projects to other employees. Now that you are back, would it necessarily be in the best interests of the organization to undertake the process of transitioning all of that work back to you? Or, if your substitutes are doing a fine enough job, does it not make most sense to leave their work assignments intact? A lot can happen in four and a half months and it might be better for business continuity not to switch project leads again. It might further your professional development if you were allowed to pick up exactly where you left off, but your boss must foremost do what is best for your employer.

Even if you are not placed back in charge of your old projects, I see no reason why you cannot work with your boss, as you did before, to secure interesting work. It is possible that your work assignments are based upon your boss' unwarranted assumptions regarding your level of commitment or energy. To be sure, it is not fair, or necessarily legal, for your employer to take your pregnancy, related complications, or leave (under the Family and Medical Leave Act or a related state law) into account in making personnel decisions. But you should not assume that this is what is going on without first having a candid talk.

If you do feel enthusiasm for your job overall and you are ready to engage fully, tell him so. You boss may have picked up on the understandable ambivalence that you feel about leaving your young baby at home, in which case you should clarify that this does not mean you lack the capacity to excel as you did before. Remind your boss about the type of work that interests you and ask to be considered for such assignments again. It will help your case if you can also humbly accept that not every project you are given will be sexy. In every job, there is a certain amount of unremarkable work to be done and it would not be fair to leave it all for your teammates.

Finally, I encourage you over the coming months to ponder whether this job is still a good fit for you. Under the best of circumstances, child birth is a transformative life experience. Add to this the hardship of a difficult post-partum recovery, and it should not be surprising if your priorities have become reordered. Many new mothers struggling with unfamiliar emotional and physical challenges are beleaguered by the idea that they should be able to step right back into the workplace roles they played before without missing a beat. I hope that you will be more patient with yourself. You might ultimately make it back to the top of your game at your current job, you might find different and more fulfilling work elsewhere, or you might discover the greatest inspiration in the company of your young child.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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