Why are maternity leaves still such a challenge for many employers?
About 54,000 new mothers in Britain are losing their jobs every year, having been dismissed, made compulsorily redundant or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their jobs, according to a report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, based on a survey of more than 3,200 women in the United Kingdom.
With maternity leave so well-established in the workplace, why do the problems remain? Probably because there are still challenges for most employers.
Finding a replacement is a big issue, especially for smaller employers, said Corinne Pohlmann, senior vice-president of national affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) in Toronto.
“You’ve got to do the recruitment, you have to do the hiring, you have to get them trained — none of this happens overnight — and, of course, you have to hold the job open with often not always a guarantee that that person is going to come back,” she said.
“As much as you want to be accommodating and help out, it does have an impact, ultimately, on effectiveness and operations.”
Too often, new parents who might know halfway through the leave that they don’t plan to return to their employer are afraid to say anything for fear of losing their government benefits — which they won’t. But waiting until the last minute to give notice causes headaches for the employer, which may have already dismissed the replacement, said Pohlmann.
The other challenge is a business can change dramatically over the course of a year, she said.
“Depending on the type of business it is, there could be all kinds of retraining that has to be done, so it’s about getting that person back into the workplace and making sure that they’re able to take on the challenges... so finding the right accommodation for them and making sure that the job is equivalent to what they had before and, at the same time, training them into potentially what has occurred over the course of the last year and getting them back into that comfort zone takes extra effort and productivity and time.”
Maternity leaves are a challenge, particularly in Canada, said Lisa Kimmel, president of PR firm Edelman Canada in Toronto.
“Twelve months is a long time in the life of business and so the pace of change that’s occurring across so many different industries and sectors means that when you have an employee out for 12 months, things have changed so it can create challenges when you’re trying to think about resourcing and staffing on business, and then also reintegration of those people.”
Employers have to find ways to make this work, said Souha Ezzedeen, an associate professor at the School of Human Resource Management at York University in Toronto, so that means initiatives such as job sharing, rotations and cross-training so they don’t necessarily have to hire a replacement.
“There also can be arrangements of some kind of moderate contact with the office — there’s different ways of working it out, it doesn’t have to be an either/or… And I get the cost (issue) but, then again, companies need to weigh the cost of that replacement against the cost of losing a great employee.”
A tough economy may play against all of this, with employers having their pick of candidates, she said.
“There’s so many to choose from, you’re not going to choose necessarily those that are going to cost you more; however, there is some evidence to indicate that working moms or moms who took time off and now are trying to come back, they’re doubly committed when someone gives them a chance and they work 10 times better.”
Ultimately, while employers aim to be profitable, “there’s more progressive economic thinking that argues that when you do the right thing, above and beyond your bottom line, you reap even more benefits,” said Ezzedeen.
Netflix, for example, recently announced it is now offering a one-year parental leave, she said.
“Businesses don’t just do that because it looks good or it feels good — there is something to be gained. And for these more forward-thinking companies, they’re realizing that long-term retention of both men and women and long-term performance and long-term, real commitment depend on our ability to think very differently.”
Employers want to ensure they attract and retain the best talent, said Kimmel.
“The onus is on the employer to determine how it is that you can ensure that you can properly reintegrate those people and ensure they do want to come back after their mat leave and then stay committed to you.”
Easing the pain
With that in mind, Edelman Canada decided to offer an informal maternity buddy program a few years back. People can choose to participate or not, said Kimmel.
“Essentially, it’s a grassroots program whereby if a woman is going on maternity leave and they want to still be connected to what’s going on at Edelman while they’re out, both from a business standpoint but also socially because the reality is people also want to be connected on a social level and be aware of what’s going on and the comings and the goings and the gossip and all of those things as well.”
The woman selects someone at the firm, preferably not her manager, and then the pair determine the parameters of the program and how they want to be engaged, she said. That means how often they want to get together and how they will connect, whether in-person, over the phone or by email.
“It just really allows for a bit of continuity for a woman who is on maternity leave to get a sense of what’s going on within the firm,” said Kimmel.
Almost all the pregnant women have used the program, she said.
“It becomes increasingly important for the woman who’s on mat leave as she’s starting to think about her return to work, so then the engagement level increases… so then they can talk about challenges of child care and being away, separation from your child and how do you juggle doing both, et cetera.”
Communication is key, according to Pohlmann.
“That’s probably the most important thing is to communicate very openly with the person. As soon as they tell you that this is (their) plan, finding out, ‘Well, what is your plan? Are you going to be going for the full year, not the full year?’” she said.
Then it’s about making plans, looking at the different parts of the job and determining what pieces can be taken over by others, and maybe having the departing employee doing the training for her replacement, said Pohlmann.
That communication should continue while the person is on leave to ensure she stays engaged, said Kimmel.
“It is important to touch base throughout the parental leave, making sure that they are aware of things that are happening, that they feel open to coming in and talking to you whenever they like… making sure they don’t completely get out of touch. Because, I know from the employee’s perspective, it can be kind of daunting to go back to work after a year being off, and intimidating, so hopefully that helps lessen that burden as well.”
That communication can also include informing pregnant employees that they won’t lose their maternity leave benefits if they decide not to come back to work. And encouraging them to notify their employer as soon as possible when they’ve made that decision, so the employer is not left high and dry, said Pohlmann.
Once the employee returns to work, some kind of onboarding approach can go far. It’s about informally showing people how things are done now and letting them know about personnel changes, she said.
“Hopefully, because you’ve kept that line of communication open, they can share with you as the employer potentially areas that they feel less comfortable in now or they want some retraining in, so you can accommodate them.”
The need for an onboarding process depends on the level of interaction and engagement there was throughout the partnerships, said Kimmel.
“It’s not something that is formalized (here) but it’s something that I actually have been discussing with our HR because I do think that, as an employer, we have a responsibility to ensure that they are properly reintegrated, re-onboarded, and it really is about really looking at them almost as if they are a new employee.”