What (Not) to Say When Navigating Parental Leave

To retain employees, managers should conduct conversations before, during, and after parental leave with care.

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While welcoming a child into the world is one of the greatest experiences most parents ever have, for organizations it can be a time fraught with fears and sensitivities. If managers aren’t mindful, an employee might choose not to return once their parental leave ends — but managers have much more influence over this decision than they realize.

Mothers and fathers of young kids are overwhelmingly choosing to stay in the workforce. But in such a strong job market, they have choices as to where to work. Surveys have found that they’re more likely to work at organizations where they feel they’re getting adequate support.

In my work with companies to support employees through the parental leave process, I’ve seen the pitfalls. It’s far too easy to say or do the wrong thing, damaging relationships with these employees and their team members. Here are some things that I teach managers to say — and to never say.

The Initial Conversation

The opportunity to establish the right tone begins the moment an employee informs you that they’re expecting a child. The employee needs to know that they’ll be supported and respected — not asked to prove their loyalty to the organization.

You should not ask how much time the employee plans to take off. Instead, operate on the assumption that the employee will take the full leave that they are entitled to, and plan around it. Express excitement and support. Say something like, “Congratulations — that’s wonderful! We’re here to help you through this process.”

The opportunity to establish the right tone begins the moment an employee informs you that they’re expecting a child.

Go over the benefits that your company offers, including how much leave is available and how much of it is paid. You should also review any paid family leave programs in your state that apply. Make sure the employee is aware of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires companies with 50 or more employees to offer unpaid leave for childbirth, adoption, and other care-related scenarios. Studies have found that many people are confused about what paid parental leave policies they have access to. In a survey, 18.6% of respondents said they were unaware whether they had access to paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child.

Leading Up to Leave

In the weeks or months leading up to the employee’s parental leave, make clear that planning is a group process — not something the employee has to handle on their own. Schedule meetings where the employee can help colleagues or contractors get up to speed on various projects underway so they’ll be ready to step in and take over when it’s time.

You should not ask pregnant employees whether they are “feeling up to” work tasks or trips. Instead, tell them that if they have a challenge in any way, they’re welcome to come to you. But you should check in with them about once a week to ask how the parental leave planning process is going and whether they’re getting the support they need.

During and After Leave

During parental leave, compliance rules often limit a manager’s contact with the employee. So aside from sending a congratulations card and gift from the organization, you should generally hold off on any communication. Instead, wait until it’s time for the employee to contact the organization to go over their return plans.

When the employee comes back to work, you should be welcoming and supportive. Don’t expect them to immediately resume all their pre-leave work, and don’t ask them when they’ll be “performing at 100%.” Instead, ask what kind of support they need as they readjust and what more you and the team can do to help.

Don’t prevent the employee from resuming work that they wish to take on. But expect that it might be several weeks before they can handle a full workload. And they might not put in any extra hours, even if they used to.

Keep an eye out for warning signs that the employee might be experiencing chronic overwhelm. Do they consistently indicate that they don’t have enough time or energy? It’s easy to confuse this with the inevitable exhaustion of a parent who has a young child, so it helps to ask them how they’re feeling. But to avoid seeming to pry, you can ask about their feelings in the context of organizational support. For example, ask, “Are you feeling supported here?” This way, you’re gently inviting them to share any emotions or stress if they wish, without making them feel pressured to divulge their inner emotional life.

What to Say to Other Employees

You should avoid making other employees on the team feel that they are responsible for “picking up the slack” while a colleague is out on leave or readjusting to work. Instead, present it as an opportunity. I recommend saying something like, “We’re committed to avoiding overloading you. Instead, we see this as an opportunity for you to develop new skills by working on tasks that interest you.” Ask employees whether there are functions they’d like to take on and how you can support them. You should also be able to ask other managers whether anyone on their teams want to help fill in, in order to grow and develop their skills or networks.

It’s critical that you consider what must get done during the employee’s absence and what can wait until they return. When a team is down by one person, executives should adjust their expectations of its output.

The more everyone feels that their interests, challenges, and career trajectories are respected and understood, the smoother the whole process will go. When these situations are handled well, employees who take leave are happy to be back; their colleagues see that if they have a child in the future, their team will support them; and the organization retains its top talent. Everyone wins.


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