Women who positively describe going back to work feel more empowered to stay in their current jobs, and most credit a supportive boss with creating a positive work environment during pregnancy and after maternity, according to findings from the It’s Working Project, which tracks stories of both men and women transitioning back to work after having a child. (Disclosure: I also serve as a contributing editor for the It’s Working Project.)
Here are several things to keep in mind to make the conversation and subsequent transition go as smoothly as possible:
If you’re telling your boss you’re pregnant: Have the conversation as well in advance as you feel comfortable, but don’t talk to your employer about specifics until you’re sure of them, says Laura Brown, executive director of First Shift Justice Project. Pregnant women are entitled to protection under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prohibits an employer from discriminating against a woman because she is pregnant and in some situations allows pregnant women to receive reasonable accommodations. Quick caveat: the law only applies to employers with over 15 employees.
Come up with a leave plan. Workplaces, the federal government included, offer a wide variety of family leave policies. Pledge cooperation in coming up with a leave plan and and see what can be done ahead of time to ensure a smooth transition. A few things to note: federal workers, including Capitol Hill employees, who have a year of service qualify for 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave. (Many individual Capitol Hill offices have their own leave plans with paid and unpaid options). Private sector employees who work in D.C. qualify for 16 weeks unpaid FMLA, even if they do not live in the district (provided the workplace has over 20 people and they have over a year’s service). D.C.’s paid leave law is pending with the City Council, a source close to the proceedings expects a vote before summer 2016.
Communicate about your pregnancy needs. Some pregnancies are smooth sailing. Others are not. “Employers aren’t necessarily medical people,” said Brown. “You are living in pregnancy and medical care. It’s easy to assume that the employer has thought through things. What if you have a complication, or the baby comes two weeks early? Educating [the employer] about the process and your situation is useful and helps your employer be comfortable with what is happening.” Brown notes this is particularly important as the due date approaches, doctor visits are likely to become more frequent.
Bring it up in person, but follow up in writing. A quick email to your boss with a conversation recap should do the trick. As with all things HR-related, a paper trail is best. Even if the hope is that you’ll never need to refer to it.
If your employee is pregnant: Oh, to be the boss, the one who must handle all the employee needs with a smile while accomplishing their own to-do list. Even the most family-friendly workplaces will require some flexibility and shifting to accommodate a new parent. Here are some ways to respond to the conversation that may be helpful both in creating a good transition and sticking well within your legal bounds.
Be positive. “Be careful of any immediate visceral reaction that is not positive. A simple congratulations would suffice,” said Brown, who has heard horror stories from clients about their boss’ aghast reactions.
Don’t respond quickly if you’re not ready. Better to be careful on your response if you’re unsure, Brown advises, and if you need to delay a response because of your own reaction, do that.
Pledge cooperation. Figuring out what is going to happen when the employee takes leave is best if it’s a two-person conversation. Don’t expect to have all the answers immediately, but pledge to be a working partner in coming up with solutions that work best for the employee, boss and workplace.
Watch out for good intentions gone awry. Some well-meaning employers who err in their interactions with pregnant women do so because of well-meaning but poorly-executed intentions. “There is this perception that ‘I can’t talk to this person anymore or ask her about her plans for maternity leave,’” said Tom Spiggle, an employment law attorney in Northern Virginia, and author or You’re Pregnant, You’re Fired! “It tends to happen more in male-dominated industries. There is nothing improper about throwing a shower, or asking her about her plans and what it means for the workplace.” Employers can also run afoul of the law in their efforts to make career decisions on behalf of the pregnant woman, even if their motivation is a protective, paternalistic one. Spiggle gives the example of a boss not promoting a pregnant woman to a job that could be perceived as more stressful, or requiring more travel, simply because the boss feels it may be the woman’s preference or ease her mind. “The employers are thinking in they are going to help her out. But you run into a situation where you are acting out in a good place of your heart but you are running afoul of the law,” said Spiggle.
When to tell your coworkers: So the boss knows, plans are set in motion, leave days tallied, so when do you let the rest of the office in on the secret?
Talk to your immediate boss before telling your coworkers. Nothing spreads faster than a secret in the workplace. Be savvy, get ahead of the story, and go in a prescribed order: boss first, immediate team second, wider group of coworkers third.
If word gets out ahead of time, move quickly. Some secrets are easier to hide than others. If a coworker finds out before you’ve told your boss, do the best to rectify the situation and let your boss know before word gets back to him or her.
Seek out the working parents. The It’s Working Project found that women who relied on advice from other moms had an easier time transitioning to maternity leave and then back to work, especially when it came to questions of pumping breast milk and navigating human resources. Everyone’s back-to-work transition is different, but speaking to someone who has had a personal experience goes a long way toward flattening the learning curve.
And finally, for anyone out there likely to be on the receiving end of these conversations, either this year or in years to come, know that your reaction will say a great deal about you as a leader and your company as a place to work. Maternity and paternity leaves are temporary, if you help transition the employee back successfully, you’re likely to find an even more dedicated, hard-working, focused, and loyal staffer. Long term, that’s a smart investment that will pay off.
Rebecca Gale is a reporter for Roll Call and mother of two boys in Bethesda, Md. She’s on twitter @BeckGale.
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