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Benefits

Mapping Out Maternity Leave

Gretchen Van Vlymen is pregnant and head of HR at a Chicago-based HR consulting firm. It provides unique perspective to offer advice on how new working parents can plan for leave.

When I found out I was pregnant, I was elated. I couldn’t wait to tell friends, register for baby stuff I wouldn’t need, sign up for Amazon Prime diaper delivery, and start the so-called “nesting” phase. But then, anxiety about balancing a new baby and work hit me like a bad wave of morning sickness.

Most working parents, moms especially, will admit that it’s intimidating to tell their employer they are expecting.

maternity

As an HR leader and a mother-to-be, Gretchen Van Vlymen offers a unique perspective on maternity leave policies.

It’s even scarier to figure out how they and their partner (if one is in the picture) will afford a new baby, let alone taking a leave that may or may not be unpaid and coming back to a job that feels unfamiliar. Once the baby arrives, there’s also the added bonus of hefty child care expenses and stressful logistics that is only enhanced by a ton of parental guilt if they can’t spend enough time with the child because they need a paycheck to make ends meet. Let’s just say the concerns for new parents are endless.

To help relieve the stress, trendy parenting blogs and baby apps give tips on how new parents should plan for a little one while working. However, as an expectant mom and HR consultant, I don’t always think their advice is realistic, nor does it jibe with what employers are actually able (or willing) to accommodate.

After my own experience and watching many of my clients go through this, here are some tips that make it easier on everyone, employee and employers alike:

  • Use the company handbook to plan ahead.
    1. Parent Perspective: Employees should research their company’s parental leave policy and other types of paid or unpaid time off available to them, such as FMLA, before a baby is in the picture.  This helps new parents evaluate timelines, child care and budgetary needs. It also helps them understand what type of benefits are offered for their new family member, such as dependent care FSA or medical coverage. I encourage them to check with HR early and often about these benefits and how to designate their child as a dependent or beneficiary.
    2. Employer Perspective: Ensuring that the company has established, well-communicated policies for new parents will make coordinating leaves easier for all departments. There should be no surprises when it comes to how the company will handle each case, and consistency is key.
  • Be Proactive Before Leave Starts
    1. Parent Perspective: Expectant parents shouldn’t wait until the month before a baby arrives to start planning how workload will be transitioned while they’re out. HR and management should also be in the loop about leave dates so everyone knows what to expect.
    2. Employer Perspective: Leaving things to chance is never a good idea. Clients and customers will suffer if a workload transition plan is not created well in advance of leave. Further, devising a plan with the employee as to how benefit premiums will be paid before they are out will save the company time and money. The company should initiate all of these conversations early in the game.
  • Allow an Employee to Take the Time
    1. Parent Perspective: Whether having a baby, adopting a baby or fostering a new child, employees are going to need time to deal the changes that parenting brings. Rushing back to work may have physical or mental side effects that will affect productivity and performance. I encourage new parents to take as much time as they can. They will be less resentful upon returning, making coworkers and management happier, too.
    2. Employer Perspective: Regardless of how painful it may be to bridge the gap while a new parent is on leave, a company is best served in the long run by allowing the employee to take as much time as possible, with pay where feasible. To be clear: I’m not advocating an unlimited leave policy, but I do foresee that pulling them back into work before they are ready may produce more harmful repercussions like additional medical leave, lost productivity and even turnover. A little flexibility and understanding here goes a long way in aiding retention and preserving morale.
  • Know Parents’ Rights
    1. Parent Perspective: It is important for new parents to recognize what rights are afforded to them. There are many federal, state and local laws that can help preserve their jobs while recovering from childbirth or bonding with a new child. Employees should research their leave rights and feel free to approach HR with questions or concerns. It will set realistic expectations on both sides of the equation.
    2. Employer Perspective: Without question, HR should be on top of these laws and make sure their handbook policies are in line. However, many companies don’t have traditionally trained HR departments that are aware of the multitude of laws that provide leave and job protection for new parents. They may have wonderful intentions but simply can’t keep up. Maintaining an open-door policy and allowing an employee to come forward with these types of questions will not only provide for a better employee/employer relationship, it could also keep the company out of a potential lawsuit should they fail to comply.

New parents have enough to worry about. Following these helpful tips will ensure work isn’t one of them.

Gretchen Van Vlymen, a 2016 Workforce Game Changer, is the head of HR at StratEx. She is also pregnant, so maternity leave policies are high priority for her. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.