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Maternity Matters

Employees must treat pregnant workers as they do other temporarily disabled employees.

Running a restaurant with a key person absent is always tough. The challenge is especially daunting when an employee is on a maternity leave that can last six to eight weeks or more. How can you give your pregnant employees the private time they need while limiting the disruption to your business? The answer lies in smart maternity leave policies and procedures. Here are some guidelines for doing things the right way.

Develop an effective policy

At the very least, of course, you must satisfy the requirements of an overlapping web of federal, state and municipal legislation that mandates a minimum standard for every business. "Employers need to know what laws apply and assure their managers are trained on what is or is not legally permissible," warns Anna Mary E. Gannon, a shareholder in the San Francisco office of Littler Mendelson, the nation's largest employment law firm. (See box, "Keep it Legal.")

Sticking to the letter of the law is one thing. It's quite another to create a policy that communicates a real concern for your employees and keeps the most valued ones from becoming so disillusioned they jump ship. Many employers are starting to realize that liberal maternity leave policies can be effective retention and recruiting tools.

"There are many ways that companies can stand out as employers of choice," points out Marcee Harris, a senior associate in advisory services at Catalyst, a New York City-based consulting firm specializing in women's workplace issues. "Parental leave policies are one of those issues where there is still a lot of room to make important strides." While most companies still don't offer more than the legally mandated leave, that policy can be shortsighted. "Women who have access to more liberal and longer leave policies are more likely to return to that employer."

When designing your own policy, consider these options:

  • Length of leave: Will you extend leave time beyond what is legally mandated?
  • Reimbursement. Will you provide full or partial reimbursement for time taken off from work?
  • Phased return. Will you allow the returning employee to work part time, or work flexible hours, for a few weeks?
  • Eligibility. Will you offer parental leave that allows fathers time to bond with their infants? How about leave for employees who adopt infants?
  • Additional services. Will you offer the employee the services of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or set up a support group for new moms? Will you provide support for lactation by setting aside a conference room or a private office a couple of times a day?

Whatever your decisions in these and other areas, be specific. "Have a clear, transparent and consistently applied policy that everyone can access easily," suggests Harris.

Express enthusiasm
Suppose Samantha breaks the news about her need for maternity leave. How do you react? It's vital to communicate a positive response. "Maybe the pregnancy comes at what seems to be the worst time, but you have to put your concerns behind you," cautions Liz Ryan, CEO of Boulder, CO-based WorldWIT, a consulting firm specializing in women's issues. She suggests saying something like this: "I am delighted for you, Samantha. I would love to make this process easy because we value your work here. And we want to see pictures of the baby when you come back."

Unfortunately, says Ryan, such light-hearted repartee is far from the norm at many employers. "Too often the manager looks at pregnancy as an inconvenience. We hear many horror stories of managers having negative reactions and saying things like ‘Oh, no! Not with the trade show coming up!' You need to look beyond your logistical needs. If you do not have a positive conversation and you end up losing a valuable employee, you have only yourself to blame."

A positive response is only the first step. The second is to reassure the employee that her place with the firm is secure. "Treat the woman as the responsible professional that she is," says Harris. "Our research shows that many women feel anxiety about telling their supervisors they are pregnant. They fear they will be treated differently, be given less challenging assignments and lose credibility."

Cover the details
Once you have assured your employee that her maternity leave will not have a negative effect on her career, have a conversation about the administrative aspects. Here are some areas to cover:

  • the employee's entitlements under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
  • your company's policies regarding disability coverage
  • how commissions and bonuses will be calculated during leave time
  • the role of health insurance coverage and how payment of premiums will be handled
  • the individuals who will perform the employee's work while she is gone

Also discuss continuity in communications: How will the employee keep in touch while she is at home? "The details will vary by individual," says Harris. "We find some people do not want to stay connected, while others keep up their social network. Still others want to do some work from home while on leave. Talk about this beforehand and respect the individual's choice."

Companies are paying more attention to employees on maternity leave and keeping in touch with them more often than in the past, according to Ryan. "It used to be that there was no contact whatsoever between the employer and the mom: The idea was ‘out of sight, out of mind.' When the employee returned she was so disoriented she didn't even recognize some people."

Let the home-bound Mom know about important news such as positions opening in other departments for which she may be qualified. Encourage managers to keep the employee involved through conference calls and one-on-one check-ins. Keep the person posted about key events so you don't end up delivering eight weeks of news all at once on the day the employee returns.

Assign the work load
So who will do the work of the employee while she is on maternity leave? Ryan suggests finding creative solutions. "Splitting the employee's work among two or three people is not an uncommon solution," says Ryan. "In the case of a large project, just push forward the deadline, putting it on hold until she comes back." Also consider taking on temporary employees.

This event might also offer your organization an opportunity to develop another member of your team who steps in and takes on the role normally played by the individual on maternity leave. "Doing this work can give another employee the chance to grow and potentially move up," says Ryan.

If the employer is ultimately responsible for solving the work assignment puzzle, the employee can play a critical role in putting the pieces in place. "Maternity leave is a partnership between the employee and the employer," says Harris. "The individual taking leave should be communicative and professional." After all, points out Harris, the employee is the expert on the work she is doing, so she can better identify the people who can perform her work. "She can even offer to train and transition the people into those roles. And she can also leave helpful notes for the people who are taking on her work."

Welcome back
The employee returning from leave should feel welcome and supported by her team and the organization. "The boss should set aside some time to meet with the returning employee," suggests Ryan. "Start out by looking at the baby pictures. Then say something like, ‘Now let's talk about what you missed and what is going on.'"

Employers need to realize that the return to work can be an emotional time. "Most new moms cry on the way to work the first day," says Ryan. "It's a combination of hormonal struggle and a feeling of sadness and conflict, because they feel they are abandoning their baby by coming to work."

The supervisor should address the emotions of the new mom in words that are specific without being condescending. Ryan suggests language such as this: "I want to let you know that we are here for you. I have read and heard that there is a conflict sometimes in the first few days back at work. If you have to duck out a half hour early or be late a half hour the first week or so, that's okay.

Be sympathetic. "I don't know what you're going through but I have heard it is not a picnic. I may not be the best shoulder to weep on but I am all ears." Greeting returning moms in a way that makes them feel understood will helps retain great employees.

Take it slowly
Plunging into the workplace all at once can be traumatic. "Our research shows that many times a gradual return from maternity leave is the most successful strategy," says Harris. "It's difficult for anyone to start out at 100 percent capacity. You may want to offer the returning employee a part-time schedule for a period of time or flexible arrangements in terms of hours. Perhaps they can work from home one or two days a week. Try to manage the individual's work load while she ramps up to full capacity." This graduated re-entry need not be long term: It can often be completed in a few weeks.

Gone are the days when employers treated pregnant workers like traitors to the cause. "The focus is changing from the old ‘how could you do this to us?' to ‘we understand this is a big event in your life; let's manage the process and make it easy,'" says Ryan. The employer that develops an effective maternity leave policy, communicates it with clarity and treats pregnant employees well will benefit from a productive and enthusiastic work force.

Phillip Perry ([email protected]) is a business writer who has spent more than 20 years writing about workplace psychology, employment law and marketing.

Keep It Legal
Employers cannot discriminate against pregnant employees in hiring, firing, promoting, granting disability leave, selecting participants for training programs or any other work-related activity.

"Legal protection against pregnancy discrimination begins with the job application process and continues through all aspects of the employment relationship," advises Katherine Cooper Franklin, a shareholder in the Seattle office of Littler Mendelson, the nation's largest employment law firm.

Among other things, employers must:

  • treat pregnant workers as they do other temporarily disabled employees
  • avoid letting personal bias affect management decisions about pregnant workers
  • avoid comments such as referring to the employee's "Buddha belly" or actions such as patting it
  • give returning employees positions equivalent to their former ones
  • avoid changing workplace conditions in an attempt to force the pregnant worker to resign

Two federal laws apply. One is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The PDA states that basing management decisions on an employee's pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions constitutes unlawful sex discrimination. Women who are pregnant or affected by related conditions must be treated in the same manner as other temporarily disabled job applicants or employees. The PDA protects all employees, regardless of how long they have been with their employer, provided the company has 15 or more employees.

The second applicable federal law is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave for pregnant workers.

The FMLA applies to employers with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius and to employees who have at least one year of service (which need not be continuous) and who worked 1,250 hours in the applicable 12-month period, which is generally that period just prior to the leave.

Be aware that some state and local anti-pregnancy discrimination laws are often more generous in terms of time off than these federal laws and often cover the smallest of employers. Since details of the law vary by state and municipality, you should have an attorney knowledgeable in employment law address your supervisors on this issue.

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