Updated: Jan 8
Research has shown that people managers have an opportunity to hugely influence the experience a woman has when she returns to work after maternity leave. Women from the same company will return to work under the same HR policy, but can have completely different experiences depending on how their manager views maternity leave. There are generally two camps; one is to think maternity leave is a normal life milestone and that careers should continue to thrive. The other side believe that women are no longer serious about their careers after having children. I hope at this stage most companies are in the former category but unfortunately unconscious bias (and sometimes conscious) means when we make hiring or promotion decisions we think “will she be planning a family soon” or “I suppose baby 2 is on the cards”. These biases need to be challenged. It may indeed be the case that this woman will want to grow her family but without a longer term mind-set, companies are missing out on key talent.
Research has shown that people managers have an opportunity to hugely influence the experience a woman has when she returns to work after maternity leave.
In my work as a Maternity Coach, I run workshops and 1:1 coaching for people managers to help them support their colleagues on maternity leave effectively. This isn’t just a nice-to-have skillset, this is a way to retain and develop talented staff who want to continue growing in their careers while still enjoying family life. The best outcomes are when we coach both the returning mothers, AND their line managers, and below are some simple tips for people managers following the easy acronym MATERNITY:
Make sure to start off on the right foot: When she announces her pregnancy say (and mean!) congratulations. Comments like “ugh we will have to backfill you” are not helpful! Remember she is probably nervous/excited/worried so take the opportunity to reassure her that this is great news. This small effort sets the tone for the coming months.
Announcement: Agree with her how the news will be communicated to the team, customers or clients. It’s best to have agreed together how her work will be managed before any announcement takes place. She will need the support of her colleagues so it’s helpful if you can tease through how they may be impacted so you are ready to reassure them as well. She will also want to manage her relationship with her customers/clients so take time together to agree the message.
Take the Lead: Often managers will think that the woman will come to them if there is an issue, or perhaps HR will take over. This is an opportunity for you to show your people management skills. Talk to her about what she thinks will work best for her and keep checking in. Be the one to reach out while she is on maternity leave so that she still feels part of the team. A simple text, phone call or coffee is all it takes. Be proactive about planning her workload when she returns. Be mindful of opportunities coming down the line and how she could be part of them.
Ensure on-going engagement: Pregnancy is a long nine months and a lot can be achieved at work in that time so keep ensuring professional goals are discussed and don’t assume she wants to opt out of opportunities during this time. Play a part in doing a little PR for her; mention her contributions in meetings; be public in giving her credit. It’s all too easy to get labelled as the one ‘going on maternity leave’ but her identity is still very much tied up in her professional role that she, like everyone else, has spent years building. Do what you can to keep that front and centre.
Reassure her that the team will be excited to welcome her back in a few months’ time and that she is a needed and valued member of the team. Maternity leave could be up to a year or even longer and many women experience a dip in confidence during this time wondering are they remembered. New colleagues may not be aware of which projects she has worked on, or which clients she has supported. Take time to update them during a team meeting before she returns so that they are aware of who she is and how she fits into the team. Make them keen to meet her and learn from her.
Negative remarks must be called out and dealt with: Too often inappropriate comments are let slide in the name of banter. It’s not banter, and if you genuinely want a diverse workforce and a respectful team environment, then it’s not good enough to allow them in a team. It’s not a ‘half day’ if she leaves at 4pm to collect her child from crèche. Chances are she was in early so decide what is acceptable and role model that. Others will follow when they see you are serious.
Inspire her to focus on what is possible. So she can’t stay late or she can’t make every social event. Is that actually important? Stay positive with her, recognise her wins and show her that you believe in her ability and her future with the company.
Treat her return as if you are on-boarding a new colleague. Women return to work to new roles, new teams, and even new locations. Get the logistics right; have a desk ready, easy access to IT systems, take the time to introduce her to new colleagues, review important projects or company developments with her. Have her leaving work on the end of Day 1 wanting to return the next day!
You set the tone: The wonderful thing about being a people manager is that you can influence how she experiences her return to work. How you work with her throughout her pregnancy, how you talk about her in her absence, how you re-onboard her all influences how others in the team behave. Know your team values and challenge yourself and others to live those values.
About Sarah Courtney
I work with employers to support their working parents, offering 1:1 Maternity & Paternity Coaching, People Manager Support, Workshops and Talks. More information is on my website sarahcourtneycoaching.ie and I would love to hear from you.
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