By Mita Mallick
A few weeks into my first maternity leave, a former colleague and friend called to check in on me and my infant son, Jay. It had been a rough birth physically and happened in Manhattan, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which added to the stress. I welcomed her call, thankful to hear her familiar voice.
“How are you doing?” she asked me gently, as we swapped new mom stories and made plans to meet up soon. “Is everything okay job wise? Are you still planning to return to work?”
“Oh yes,” I replied quickly, changing my son’s diaper as we spoke. “Why wouldn’t I?”
She was silent for a moment, then said, “A recruiter called me about your job, and it’s also posted online, so I thought you weren’t coming back. I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you that.”
I don’t remember what I said next. I don’t remember how the call ended. I do remember that my head was spinning. I finished feeding my son and put him down for a nap.
Why would my job be posted online when I was going back? Why were they looking to backfill me when I was on maternity leave? Why hadn’t anyone told me?
I thought back to the period before I’d taken leave. When the doctor advised me to stop traveling to customer meetings in my third trimester, my bosses weren’t happy. When I stayed at the office until 11 pm to work on urgent requests at seven months pregnant, no one ever suggested that I order dinner. (I recall finding old airline crackers in my bag.) When I wrapped up things a few days before my due date, management assured me that I would come back to my role. But now I didn’t trust them. I resigned towards the end of my maternity leave after finding another opportunity.
The lesson I drew from this was simple. Maternity leave is one thing. Support for new mothers is an entirely different issue.
Asha Santos, a partner at Littler Mendelson P.C., who advises U.S. companies on employment law and how to build respect in the workplace, agrees: “How a woman is treated in the months leading up to her maternity leave and then during leave and shortly thereafter when she returns to work will determine whether or not a company will be able to retain her,” she explains.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 60% of organizations offered 12 weeks of maternity leave and 33% offered longer leaves. Some organizations are also making policies more inclusive: Spotify, Etsy, Twitter and more offer paid parental leave for both birth and non-birth parents to step in and fill the void in countries like the U.S. where no mandated paid parental leave exists.
But paid time off is not enough. Organizations need to create a broader ecosystem to support them. Here are five questions to focus on as we look to retain, develop and promote new parents, especially mothers:
Who will take on her work?
I have been on maternity leave twice. I have also had a number of bosses, team members, and peers take leave. When there’s no clear plan for transitioning responsibilities or one that simply throws work onto employees and colleagues, it creates a great deal of anxiety. A new mom might feel like she is burdening her team, while her peers become resentful.
One solution is to create a pool of former employees who know your organization well and could consult for a few months to cover the work, or partner with an organization like The Second Shift, founded by Gina Hadley and Jenny Galluzzo, which has created a marketplace to match companies with female experts who can help on certain projects or to cover leaves. This is how my second maternity leave was handled: My boss hired a former employee as a consultant to cover my work for the five months I was out.
If you can’t bring in a consultant and need current team members to help, ensure they are compensated with a cash bonus or an increase in base salary. If they don’t have bandwidth, consider tapping other people in the organization to help and reward them.
How will you assess her performance?
I once received a poor performance review after I’d just come back from maternity leave. I’d previously been told that I’d met my deliverables and was leaving the team in strong shape, and the rationale for the new rating was vague: “The business is now in decline.”
Don’t operate this way. Instead, sit down with people before they take leave and give them detailed feedback on their performance year-to-date versus their goals. If necessary, explain how the leave will affect any merit or bonus pay. If a formal review would have taken place while they’re out, promise another formal review when they return. Some might want to have this conversation during their leave.
If you are forced to rank team members on a “bell curve,” evaluate those on maternity leave based on their performance before it. If you find that new parents are falling to the lower end of the curve, your organization needs to have an open and honest dialogue about the biases you’re bringing to the table.
Originally Posted On Harvard Business Review