I have to stand up and applaud Sheryl Sandberg today. Not for leaning in. For finally saying what every HR and Operations person in history has always thought, but every lawyer who works for our organizations would never allow us to do. Ask a simple question that has huge aspects to how we run our businesses. “So, what’s the deal? You knocked up or what? What’s the plan?” It’s not discriminatory. It’s not biased. It’s a reality of our workforce. Women get pregnant and have to take time away to have the child. Organizations need to plan effectively for this. To do that the leadership team needs some time to plan. Seems like a very simple concept to grasp. Yet, most in HR, to this day, advise their leadership teams to never have this conversation with a female employee.
From the Wall Street Journal – Sheryl Sandberg: It’s OK to talk about babies:
“People genuinely want to handle gender issues in the workplace well, but it’s a topic that makes everyone uncomfortable,” says Sandberg. “No one wants to be insensitive, so often they say nothing at all.” One male manager told Sandberg he would rather talk about his sex life in public than take up gender issues with his staff.
Many managers, especially men, may shy away from such discussions because they fear saying anything inappropriate, or worse, illegal. For lots of managers, even mentioning pregnancy and child-rearing is off limits. “The easy and often reflexive recommendation from counsel is often to stay away from any conversation or discussion,” say Joseph Yaffe and Karen Corman, employment lawyers at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
That’s a “very bad interpretation” of gender discrimination laws, Sandberg says. While rules to protect against gender discrimination are necessary, she says they shouldn’t be used to stifle important workplace conversations. “The path of not talking about it is not working,” she says.
So, should you do a 180 and now tell all of your leaders to start asking their female workforce if they’re actively engaged in trying to make babies? No, slow down cowboy! Here’s some talking points to help move your organization towards having business necessity conversations about potential work disruptions due to pregnancy:
1. Let it be known publicly within your organization how you want to work and communicate with expectant ‘parents’ – both parents need to know, since many families are now deciding to use FMLA time to help care for their spouse/partner and baby. This just isn’t a Mom issue any more. Communicate that you expect that parents will miss time for the birth or adoption of a child. The intent of communicating open and honestly with leadership to help plan your absence so there is as little disruption as possible to organization and for the individual employee.
2. Coach your leaders to never imply or pry about an individuals desires for family. If your culture is open, your employees will come to your leaders when the time is right. Be very clear with your leaders – an employees pregnancy is something very personal – some will want to celebrate, some will want to keep if very quiet – don’t treat everyone the same. Always be supportive of how you as a leader and organization will continue to support them in their career development – in what ever way they decide they want this to go.
3. Acknowledge the realities of what is ahead. I love having a sit down with HR, the group leader and the employee to have one big open discussion, having everyone on the same page in developing the transition plan. This includes scheduling a return, which will have some flexibility to it. The worst thing you can do to a new Mom is to have her go from maternity leave to full work week right away! Start with partial week or days during the first week. Talk with the leader about allowing for some additional flexibility during those first days. Be empathetic. If you feel someone is taking advantage of your flexible policy – address that individually – don’t manage the entire organization like everyone will take advantage – most will not.
I go into each expectant mother conversation planning and expecting 100% will return to work. Period. I know the reality is, 100% will not return. I never ask, “So, are you coming back?” The reality is most will never know until that baby is in their arms. Those who know for sure, will tell you. Either way, I don’t need to ask that question, my plan stays the same – how do we support the employee and support the organization will as little disruption to both as possible.
The worst thing we can do as leaders and HR Pros is act like everything is the same and not talk about it. It’s not. There will be change and great organizations plan for change, and make the best of the situation at hand.