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When the post-maternity leave 'return to work' talk ends in tears

/ Feb 15, 2013 6:22AM / Print / ()

When the post-maternity leave 'return to work' tal...

I recently bumped into a woman I used to work with. Almost a year earlier she had taken maternity leave and was preparing to return to work. She had just had the discussion with her employer and was feeling down.

We went for coffee because she wanted my advice. Her boss had given her an ultimatum: return to work full-time or not at all. His rationale was that she was a senior member of the team and he believed she needed to be in the office every day to provide visible leadership.

He had given her a week to think about it. She wasn't sure what to say to him. The following appeared to be her options:

  1. Return to work full-time.

    This was clearly the desired position for the company but not for this first-time mum. She made the decision that she wanted to be with her baby more often than not so working five days a week was not what she had in mind. Her partner worked long hours and she didn't have family available to help her. Full-time work was really not an option.

  2. Quit her job and find another one.

    Jobs don't grow on trees, particularly one as satisfying and rewarding as the one she faced giving up. In her line of work it is also far more difficult to get a part-time job from the outset than it is to swap to more flexible arrangements when you have proven your value to an organisation. She would prefer to stay with the company and return to her role but she had been told that a part-time arrangement wasn't an option.

  3. Provide the boss with a viable solution so he has someone in the chair providing leadership each day.

    We discussed the idea of her job-sharing with the woman who had taken on the maternity contract to cover her leave. I thought it was a win-win solution for everyone. The woman had indicated she would be interested in that arrangement. The organisation would then have two people trained for the senior role, which mitigates the risk of losing the corporate intelligence and history around that role.

She decided to pitch the job-sharing arrangement to him. Although it would have been ideal for all involved, the employer said no to that idea. He had no confidence in a shared work arrangement as he had no previous experience with it. He was apparently an inflexible manager with a preference for routine and rules.

As we move towards working arrangements that make sense for mothers and allow them to retain careers, it's increasingly clear that many employers need assistance in understanding the benefits. Those benefits may be crystal clear to us but real change won't take effect unless organisations trust them enough to embrace them.

My former colleague decided to resign from her job without another one to go to, and so has effectively stepped away from her career that took 15 years to build. It may be the company's loss but that's small consolation to a woman who feels like she has had her career ripped out from her.

What would you have done in her situation?

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