There were plenty of things Jaime Bernstein talked about while interviewing for her job as senior matchmaker at Three Day Rule’s D.C. office. Her résumé. Her vision for the position. But one thing she didn’t discuss? The fact that she was pregnant.
It wasn’t until she had an offer letter in hand from the dating service that she revealed her good news. “I was nervous, but I got a lot of support,” she says. “I was glad I didn’t disclose it, even though I don’t think it would have changed the outcome.”
While pregnancy leads to lots of exciting changes, it also brings up important questions for women in the workplace. When and how should you tell your boss? How much maternity leave should you take? Will you be back to business as usual after the baby?
Knowing where you stand is important before beginning any office conversations. Do you want to move from full- to part-time work? Do you want the ability to work from home or take flex time? And what do you want to adjust about your job after having the baby? “Really think about what you want,” says Melissa S. Fireman, co-founder and CEO of career management firm Washington Career Services. “The clearer you are, the easier it is to present whichever scenarios you want to happen.”
Many women wait until after the first trimester to tell their boss, but there is no exact “right” time. “If women want to wait until 20 weeks because it makes them feel more comfortable, they’re not letting their employer down in doing so,” says Allyson Downey, co-founder of baby gear review website weeSpring and the author of “Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood.”
Still, be careful about sharing your secret with any co-workers before letting your boss know. Pregnancy discrimination is still an issue women contend with, and if your boss gets wind that you’re pregnant, it can lead to some gray areas.
“If you weren’t on record as having told them that you’re pregnant, someone inclined to discriminate against pregnant women could fire you but then later claim they had no idea [that you were pregnant],” says Tom Spiggle, founder of Arlington-based Spiggle Law Firm, which specializes in employee rights cases, and the author of “You’re Pregnant? You’re Fired!: Protecting Mothers, Fathers and Other Caregivers in the Workplace.”
You don’t have to make an overly formal announcement. Fireman recommends sharing the news after a positive review or conclusion of a big project.
“Employers want to keep talent,” she says. “So if you’ve just completed a $5 million project, they’re going to be nervous about losing you, but want to try to keep you.”
Downey suggests giving employers time to digest the news. Then follow up a few weeks later to discuss specifics. “Go into the second meeting with really concrete details of how much time you plan to take off, who can cover for you in your absence, and the types of things you’re going to do to prepare,” she says.
Understanding the maternity leave available to you can be complicated. Different companies have different policies, and the size of your company can impact things like whether you’re covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which entitles eligible employees to unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons, including maternity leave. Get familiar with your employee handbook, and go into human resources meetings with a list of questions.
Deciding how much leave to take often comes down to balancing personal preferences with practical issues, like the financial implications resulting from any unpaid time off. Bernstein went into labor just six weeks after starting her job. Because she was so new to her position, Three Day Rule agreed to hold her job with no pay. “This was a dream job opportunity, so my husband and I figured out a plan so we could afford to do that,” she says.
Downey advises requesting the maximum time you can take and then seeing what happens. “If at eight weeks you’re going bananas in your house, they’re going to be really happy to have you come back early rather than be left at a loss because you want to stay out another month,” she says.
If you want to ask for flex time or the ability to work from home after the baby is born, the right approach can increase your chances of success. “The No. 1 way to get flexibility at your job is to be really good at your job,” says Downey. “Walk into the room with solutions, not problems.”
Are you facing discrimination?
If staying home with the baby proves to be the right decision for you, keeping at least a toe in your chosen career can make a future return to work much easier. “Even if you’re working 10 to 15 hours a week doing accounting or recruiting, people will know your skills are active and up to date,” says Fireman. “And if you’re a real talent, people will want you back.”
An employer is not allowed to treat you differently because you’re pregnant. What Tom Spiggle calls “improper stereotypes” can be a form of pregnancy discrimination. “You’re pregnant, therefore you will be forgetful or not come to work on time,” he says as an example of one of these stereotypes. “Or, ‘We’re not going to give you that promotion that requires a lot of travel, because we know someone having a new baby doesn’t want to do that.’”
If you think you’re being discriminated against, keep a record of what’s happening. The size and location of your company impact which federal and state laws apply to pregnancy discrimination and accommodations. “It’s sad that it is so complicated, but it is,” Spiggle says. He says websites such as abetterbalance.org and worklifelaw.org can help pregnant employees figure out their legal rights. The next step is to find an employment law attorney with experience in pregnancy discrimination. For that, you can use the local affiliate of the National Employment Lawyers Association.
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