Go on Maternity Leave Without Compromising Your Career

maternity leave

Having a baby should be one of the happiest times of your life. But an unsupportive work environment can leave you wrought with anxiety. More than 3,500 women filed pregnancy discrimination charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year, and when I began researching this topic to find women who’d been terminated while pregnant or on maternity leave, I was flooded with responses: a marketing director laid off with no severance when she was six months along, a woman who was told her position was “being eliminated” during her last month of leave (though her supervisor kept the temp worker who filled in for her), a new mom who was shifted to a less important team while on leave since it “would be easier with the new baby and all” (soon after, that division was hit hard with layoffs and she lost her job) and many more. 

There’s a lot of confusion out there about maternity leave — from whether you can legally be fired (you can, for just cause), to the deal with FMLA, to whether your employer can change your job while you’re out (yep, according to Katherine Kimpel, managing partner at Sanford Heisler, so long as your new job is equivalent to your old arrangement — in terms of hours, benefits, pay, responsibilities and opportunities). If you’re expecting, or planning to start a family one day, read on to learn what your rights are and how you can embrace motherhood without compromising your career.

Could Maternity Leave Make or Break Your Career?

Could Maternity Leave Make or Break Your Career?

Having a baby should be one of the happiest times of your life. But an unsupportive work environment can leave you wrought with anxiety. More than 3,500 women filed pregnancy discrimination charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year, and when I began researching this topic to find women who’d been terminated while pregnant or on maternity leave, I was flooded with responses: a marketing director laid off with no severance when she was six months along, a woman who was told her position was “being eliminated” during her last month of leave (though her supervisor kept the temp worker who filled in for her), a new mom who was shifted to a less important team while on leave since it “would be easier with the new baby and all” (soon after, that division was hit hard with layoffs and she lost her job) and many more. 

There’s a lot of confusion out there about maternity leave — from whether you can legally be fired (you can, for just cause), to the deal with FMLA, to whether your employer can change your job while you’re out (yep, according to Katherine Kimpel, managing partner at Sanford Heisler, so long as your new job is equivalent to your old arrangement — in terms of hours, benefits, pay, responsibilities and opportunities). If you’re expecting, or planning to start a family one day, read on to learn what your rights are and how you can embrace motherhood without compromising your career.

Know Your Rights During Pregnancy

Know Your Rights During Pregnancy

Familiarize yourself with the law so you’re clear on what’s legal and what’s not prior to making the announcement that you’ll be going on maternity leave. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act forbids prejudicial treatment in the workplace based on pregnancy — including hiring, firing, pay, promotions, etc. But employers can lawfully terminate a pregnant woman or new mom on maternity leave if they can prove that she’s being let go for an unrelated reason — like your sales numbers have been low and you’ve been warned repeatedly about it, or you habitually get to work late and miss meetings.

“Under the Americans With Disabilites Act, employers also must also make reasonable accommodations for pregnant women,” says Christopher Kuczynski, assistant legal counsel for the EEOC (say, not requiring you to lift heavy objects or fly after 36 weeks). However, if pregnancy affects your ability to adequately perform your job (think: extended bed rest), things get a little murkier. You’re not protected by the ADA if accommodating your situation “would cause significant difficulty or expense,” though there are creative alternatives, like working from home or if your employer can hire someone to fill in on a temporary basis.

When it comes to part-time jobs, “you're only protected under Title VII if the company has at least 15 full-time workers,” Kuczynski points out. "But many states and cities have their own anti-discrimination laws that may cover smaller businesses."

...And As a New Mom

...And As a New Mom

Before you talk to your boss, research your company’s maternity leave policies, and make an appointment with HR if you have any questions. At the federal level, the Family and Medical Leave Act grants employees 12 workweeks of unpaid leave — as long as you’ve put in at least 1,250 hours during the prior year, have been with the company for a minimum of 12 months (not necessarily consecutive) and work either in the public sector or for a private business with 50 or more local employees. Your employer may require you to use paid vacation or sick days toward your 12 weeks, and if you choose, you can begin your leave during pregnancy. That said, you’re also not required to use all 12 weeks. “Think about your personal finances and what is realistic in terms of taking unpaid leave,” says executive coach and Forbes contributor Bonnie Marcus.

And good news about breastfeeding: The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that employers provide nursing mothers adequate break time and a private environment to pump for a year following the birth of her child.

Create a Game Plan

Create a Game Plan

Write up a proposal for your boss suggesting how operations will unfold without you. “Think strategically about likely candidates to cover your work, and divide up the tasks based on people’s workload and skill set,” says Marcus. “Develop a plan to train your team to handle projects they might not be familiar with and create simple processes for them to follow.” Note the estimated dates you’ll be out, to what degree you’d like to be contacted (or not), and whether you’ll attend any meetings or respond to emails.

“This is also the time to negotiate for anything outside of the box,” says Rezvani. For example: “I’m as committed to my job as ever, but I’d like to come back in a graduated style.” Then present her with a plan where you’d work 40 percent your first week back, 60 percent the next and then full-time. “You should handle your maternity leave with the same attention you would use when working on a critical business project,” says Rezvani. “The stronger your proposal, the easier it is for your manager to say yes — or go to bat for you with her supervisor.”

Share the News at the Right Time and Nail the Announcement

Share the News at the Right Time and Nail the Announcement

In general, a good time to break the news to your boss is after your first trimester, when you’re just starting to show, but it’s not obvious. “That way the rumor mill hasn’t started yet,” says Selena Rezvani, author of “Pushback: How Smart Women Ask — and Stand Up — for What They Want.” People don’t always look at pregnant women favorably in the workplace (especially if you’ve been tired or sick and are leaving the office frequently for doctors’ visits), so timing the conversation properly gives you a chance to control your reputation, Rezvani says. 

When meeting with your boss, it’s all about attitude. “Don’t be apologetic about your pregnancy. Be positive,” says Marcus. “Present your plan with confidence, and your proactive approach will demonstrate your commitment to the company and to retaining your position.”

To make the strongest impression on your manager, touch on three key points. First, the announcement itself: Tell your boss that you have exciting news and when your due date is so she knows your timeline right away. 

Then, go into next steps: Say, “In the coming months, you can expect a few sit-down meeting requests from me to go over my suggestions for how workflow should be handled during my absence.” “Many people wait to be led by the hand by their manager,” says Rezvani. “[But] your boss will be grateful you’re taking the initiative.” Finally, make a statement that proves you’re as invested as ever. Rezvani suggests saying something like, “I’m committed to making sure things go smoothly during the buildup to my departure and while I’m out.” 

Talk About the Future

Talk About the Future

Even if you’re not sure you want to go back to work full-time post-baby, safeguard your career by acting like you do. “Many managers still believe the ‘mommy track’ adage. They assume you’ll be less interested in career advancement and instead will want something very routine,” says Rezvani. “Discussing your role in future projects and initiatives within the company will counter some of the stigma that parents face.” And remember that if you’re a first-time mom, it’s hard to predict how you’ll feel. Lots of women think they’ll be back in the office in two weeks, but end up wanting to stay home longer — and vice-versa. Play it safe and every chance you get, show your boss that you plan to be on board long-term.

Keep a Record

Keep a Record

Unfortunately, some employers will build a case to lay off an expectant mother for a performance or conduct problem even if the pregnancy is the real impetus. One woman I spoke to felt that she was held to a double standard: After cutting back her hours, her boss sent her an email threatening to fire her if she was late (sometimes unavoidable in snowy New England, where she lives) or made personal calls from work — despite the fact that other employees did both of these things on a regular basis. 

If you suspect that your manager might be trying to sideline you, document everything. For instance, if after announcing your pregnancy, you suddenly started receiving poor performance reviews even though your appraisals were all positive prior to then, keep track of those evaluations. “And if anyone makes a discriminatory comment, note when and where it happened, who said it and whether there were any witnesses,” adds Kuczynski. Should you decide to take legal action, the more backup info you have, the stronger your case. 

Other times, mothers may face unfair treatment when they return to their job and find they’re being pushed out. “If an employer is demanding more of her than a similarly situated employee — piling on more assignments and requiring more hours of work — then there may be a case for discrimination,” says Kuczynski. Again, document everything.

Identify Your Eyes and Ears

Identify Your Eyes and Ears

A few weeks before your due date, Rezvani recommends asking four or five trusted co-workers (parents are always a good bet because they’ve been in your shoes) to keep you informed of major happenings during your absence — i.e., someone getting fired, your boss being promoted, your department merging with another. “You don’t want to be caught off-guard by potentially career-changing developments,” she explains.

Don’t Fall Into a Black Hole

Don’t Fall Into a Black Hole

How connected to the workplace you want to be during maternity leave is up to you and depends on your career goals. “Your boss can’t legally compel you to do work or otherwise stay in touch with colleagues at all during FMLA or short-term disability leave,” says Kimpel. “The law is designed to protect you from being pressured into working, and while it is best for employees not to do so, if you really want to check in now and then, that is a personal choice that you as the employee could make.” 

If you want to take it easy and totally focus on bonding with your baby, then only touch base occasionally, if at all. “On the other hand, if you’re hoping for a promotion in the near future, it may make sense for you to maintain a presence,” says Rezvani. “I always say, under-commit and overdeliver.” For instance, if your company is launching a new product during your leave that you were integral in working on, you might promise to attend the three major roll-out meetings, though you may ultimately choose to go to more. 

Not sure how present you’ll be? Depending on your role, consider setting up a regularly scheduled conference call with your boss and your team. “This is the best way to avoid being bombarded with emails and phone calls all week,” explains Marcus. “Let your team know that they will have their questions answered during this call and to hold other requests unless absolutely necessary. It not only helps you avoid constant interruptions, but also helps your team to learn to be more resourceful and independent.” (Just be sure to define “absolutely necessary” for them.) “A reply-all message is also a great way to show people you’re still in the loop,” adds Rezvani. You can keep it short and sweet, a la, “I agree that’s the direction we should take.”

Be Your Own Publicist

Be Your Own Publicist

When you’re returning from a three-month absence, go on a campaign to reassert your position and relevance. “Keep everyone informed of your accomplishments,” says Marcus. “You want to make sure that your boss and key stakeholders in the company know the value of your work. Plus, the more others understand that, the more likely you are to negotiate some flexibility with your position should the need arrive.” 

Take a three-tiered approach: “Express your engagement at the firm level, the department level and the one-on-one level,” suggests Rezvani. For example, at the firm level, present at a conference representing your company, or if you received an accolade or published a paper, put that in the company newsletter. Offer to serve on an internal task force to stress your investment at the departmental level. “And have a meeting with your manager to recalibrate where things stand and clarify your short- and long-term priorities,” says Rezvani.

Keep in mind that mat leave can give you a professional edge: “You’ve gotten the kind of time and distance that many managers would kill for,” says Rezvani. “Use your fresh eyes to your advantage.” 

Set Boundaries

Set Boundaries

So, you’re back at work … but you’re also taking breaks to pump every few hours and leaving at 5pm on the dot instead of putting in the extra hour or two to finish things up at the end of the day the way you used to. It’s hard to juggle the responsibilities of new motherhood without cutting corners. “Explain to your boss that while you have to be rigid with boundaries like timing, you’ll be extremely flexible in terms of what projects you work on when you are in the office,” says Rezvani. “That can brand you in a positive way.” Try something along the lines of: “I don’t have a lot of flex time when it comes to hours, but I want you to understand that I’m very committed to this job nonetheless, so please think of me when it comes to tough projects or assignments that other people have passed on.” What supervisor wouldn’t love to hear that?

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