Maternity leave can be a minefield for HR. You may well be delighted for the expectant mother, but there’s also a good chance that you are worried about managing her leave, concerned about the suitability of her replacement, and mindful of the legal issues.
And what about when she comes back? Will she step back into her role without a look back over her shoulder? Or will it be a case of ‘milk brain’, forgotten skills and irritated colleagues?
The trick is to look at maternity leave as an opportunity.
For HR, it is a chance to further develop the bond with an employee and, correctly managed, it can win real loyalty.
Accenture is keen to support staff before, during and after maternity leave.
Niamh McKenna, senior executive in their outsourcing group, says: “I had my first baby while working at Accenture and was thankful to discover that the company offers a great deal of support and assistance. Early on in my pregnancy I attended a maternity leavers workshop. During maternity leave I also kept in regular contact with my boss and was invited to all the key meetings. This was invaluable in helping me ease back into work.”
McKenna’s return was equally well organised, with a maternity returners workshop. This was, she says, “a great way to share tips and ideas with other new mums”.
And conversations on motherhood will inevitably, among colleagues, lead to conversations about work – and informal knowledge sharing can be of huge benefit to an organisation.
But while a great fuss is made of the mum-to-be – with presents, cards, and all-round pampering – little thought is given to the person stepping into her shoes.
Consider the element of insecurity – as an HR practitioner, how do you make someone feel secure in their job when you don’t even know how long it will last?
As is so often the case, the answer lies in communication. You should be sitting down with the ‘coverer’ at regular intervals, keeping them up-to-date, and discussing their options for when the person they are replacing returns.
If they are internal, they may not want to go back to the job they left behind. You need to keep them motivated, and at the same time help the company benefit from any new skills acquired. Throughout the maternity cover, and after, manage their expectations, or you may lose them. If they’re external, you may want to consider hiring them.
Anna Allan, senior consultant, Balance@Work/Working Families, points out that although maternity cover is usually carried out by someone looking for a permanent role, there can be an unexpected result – job sharing.
Having had a child, women often realise that they aren’t keen to return to full-time work. At the same time, their replacement may have been doing well. Provided that the two are at a similar stage in life, job sharing can be a good option.
Of course, as Allan admits, HR will have a real headache should one of the sharers subsequently resign.
Maternity leave, if well planned, and approached with some degree of thought for all of the individuals concerned, should be further proof of an effective HR operation.
See maternity leave as an opportunity, not a hassle
Consider a workshop for leavers and/or returners
Give as much focus to your maternity cover as you would to the mother
Explore job-sharing options when the mother returns