Managing the Diverse Needs of Expecting and New Parents in the Workplace
A few weeks ago, the President issued a memorandum “Modernizing Federal Leave Policies for Childbirth, Adoption and Foster Care to Recruit and Retain Talent and Improve Productivity.” These policy changes provide greater flexibility for and support of new parents – both mothers and fathers. Such policies alone, however, cannot create a family-friendly workplace. Leaders and supervisors must take action to imbed a family-friendly culture, especially for expecting and new parents.
I was visibly pregnant with my first and then second child when I interviewed for my last two jobs. I remember feeling anxious and apprehensive going in; part of me was certain that I’d be seen not as a valuable potential asset, but as an absentee manager with a steady stream of family-related reasons to be out of the office for months to come. What I experienced is what I believe all must do. The leaders in both organizations each had built an inclusive environment that values and supports every member of the team, including new parents and parents-to-be, so that every team member was able to contribute fully to achieving the organization’s mission.
It is well known the first few years with young children can be exceedingly challenging for parents and may lead to lower productivity levels if they don’t have the organizational support to help them balance the demands of the job and their expanding family. So what can leaders do to leverage the value of their employees who are starting or adding to their families? Here are a few tips from my leadership toolbox (and personal experience with great bosses):
- Be Actively and Visibly Supportive. Show enthusiasm when your team member shares the good news. Ask that person what he or she will need from you and the organization to support his or her needs. One former colleague reported that when she informed her boss, the response was, “Are you sure this is what you want? I thought you were interested in having a career.” She left the organization shortly thereafter.
- Remember It’s Family/Medical Leave, not Vacation. Recognize that new parents are recovering physically from childbirth, perhaps even major surgery. However, many parents-to-be feel pressured to take less than the allotted 12 weeks FMLA and return to work before they or the newborn are physically or mentally ready. Be sure to encourage your employees to take the time they need. Prepare for work to be covered by other staff while they are on leave so they feel no anxiety or expectation to return before they are ready and able.
- Recognize That Men Need Time, Too. Last year we saw paternity leave hit the headlines when the starting second baseman for the NY Mets missed two games to be with his wife and newborn son – only to be criticized by local sportscasters. Although FMLA covers paternity leave, all too often our organizational cultures expect new dads to return to work a few days after the child is born – if they miss any work time at all. Not only do new dads need time to bond with their babies, but they also need to be home because their partner needs several weeks (or even months) to physically recuperate from childbirth. Beyond compliance with FMLA, leaders should encourage time off and telework arrangements for fathers. And by the way, kudos to the Mets’ front office for supporting their player throughout the media firestorm.
- Soften the Landing. Actively support parents when they return to the workplace. Consider staggering work schedules to accommodate the needs of different team members. Make sure breastfeeding mothers have a private and comfortable space to pump during the day and allot them the time needed to do so. Although there are Federal policies to ensure that employers provide private space for breastfeeding, many agencies and organizations offer fairly limited spaces that can be difficult to access. Moms should not have to feel like their only viable option is a stall in the public restroom.
- Call HR. Check with your work-life agency coordinator about additional options for parents so they know what’s available. Great managers take the time to show they support all of their employees. Consider meeting with an HR rep to identify options for all of your employees to consider in terms of childcare, alternative work schedules, health and wellness activities, employee assistance programs, and telework. Two months after my first child was born, my supervisor and I set up a telework agreement. I was able to feel like a valuable contributor to my team and to continue bonding with my baby. When I did return to the office full time, I felt prepared to be away from my child and ready to dive back into office life without feeling like I had missed much.
Inclusive leadership in today’s workplace requires leaders to recognize and address the diverse needs of their workforce. Supporting employees as they balance their careers and home lives not only complies with the law, but also helps strengthen employee engagement and maximizes the talent of our teams.