Years ago, when I was just starting my career, I had a boss who seemed eerily suspicious of me, and the few other young women in his employ. I couldn’t figure out what, if anything, I was doing wrong.
I later learned that a few years before I got the job, he had an employee who had a baby and went on mat leave. He’d hired a replacement on a one-year contract. The replacement was great—a good fit who delivered strong performance. As the year neared its end, the replacement, understandably, lined up another gig elsewhere, even though she would have liked to stay on. That’s about the time that my boss discovered the employee on mat leave wasn’t planning to come back. So not only was he out a tenured staffer—he was also out a competent replacement. The incident made him wary that any woman of child-bearing age was at one point or another going to leave him scrambling.
While I won’t excuse my old boss for tarring all us young women with the same brush, I do get where he was coming from. Our team was small enough that every person wore a lot of hats—and, as such, every vacancy was keenly felt. He didn’t begrudge the decision of his female employees to have children, or their right to take time off to care for them; he just resented how disruptive it was to his business.
Variations on this theme occur every day in workplaces across Canada. I hear about it all the time, and I’m willing to bet you do, too. So long as the new parent hasn’t exceeded the statutory year-long maternity/parental leave combo, by law, you as an employer have to hold their job (or one comparable) for them, unless you’ve dramatically restructured the business or downsized in such a way that their position is genuinely redundant. And you can ask them if and/or when they want to come back as much as you like; they don’t have to answer until four weeks before their return date. This makes it pretty tough to plan.
In this 2011 piece in Canadian Business (PROFIT’s sister magazine), writer Jasmine Budak probed the problems that mat leave creates for employers:
“Many businesses struggle with the financial and efficiency burdens of filling temporary positions, especially if they’re senior or highly skilled roles. They can’t be sure if the new parents will return after their leaves or choose to cut back their workload—or quit altogether. Meanwhile, resentment may brew among remaining staff forced to shoulder extra work demands. Perhaps worst of all, employers can’t even complain. Coming out against parental benefits would be like mourning sweatshops and sexual harassment.”
This situation is especially difficult for SMEs. Whereas larger firms usually have the headcount—and the HR support—to facilitate relatively seamless mat-leave swap-outs, smaller companies usually don’t.
I want to be crystal-clear: I think mat leave is a very good thing for parents and children. (I recently took one myself, so it’d be pretty hypocritical of me to state otherwise.) But I also empathize with employers who need to fill positions for people who may or may not return. It’s a situation that puts even the most supportive, baby-loving boss in a bind. I recently spoke to one entrepreneur who had three people on her 12-person staff off on mat leave at the same time. While she was genuinely happy for the young families in her fold, the stress of the situation on her organization was keeping her up at night. Can you blame her?
All this said, I don’t think the situation is unsolvable. So, I’m turning the question to you: What do you do to minimize the disruption to your organization when an employee goes on mat leave? How do you keep staff engaged while they’re off? What do you do to ensure they’ll come back? And what, if anything, do you do to get a sense of their return-to-work plans before you lose the person who’s replaced them?
Please share your strategies in the comments section below—remember, you can comment anonymously, and your email is never visible.
We’ll publish the best comments and advice in an upcoming issue of PROFIT.
Deborah Aarts is an award-winning senior editor at PROFIT Magazine. Her coverage of opportunities and challenges for Canada’s entrepreneurial innovators covers HR, leadership, sales and international trade, among other topics.
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