3 Things to Do When an Employee Returns from Parental Leave

June 1, 2017
3 Things to Do When an Employee Returns from Parental Leave

We previously explored three things you need to do when your employee tells you she is pregnant and we gave you some tips for thinking beyond paid maternity leave when considering best practices in retaining and recruiting your talent. Now, we’ll offer guidance on what employers should think about - separate and apart from legal requirements - when an employee is ready to return from maternity or paternity leave. The information here is given assuming the employee and new child are healthy.  (If there are health issues involved, please contact your HR services provider for further recommendations).

We both had babies in 2015 and know the challenges that new parents experience, not only upon becoming a new parent, but also upon returning to work and transitioning to being a working parent. We have experienced the anxiety associated with that shift but we also recognize that there are concerns on the employer’s end regarding not just legal compliance but also best practices.  To help with this, here are three things that you, as an employer, should be thinking about doing (even if not legally required) to ensure a successful return to work for everyone involved.

"There are so many things that new parents must juggle and it takes some time to master them. So, within reason, be flexible and understanding, especially in the first months after a new parent returns to work."

1) Allow nursing mothers to express milk
Federal law requires many employers to provide breaks and a private place for a non-exempt nursing employee to express breast milk for up to one year after giving birth. Laws in some states go even further by covering all employees and not limiting the requirement to the first year.

Even if your returning employee is not entitled by law to take time in a private place to express milk, we recommend that you provide such an accommodation – and that you don’t use a bathroom for this purpose.  There is general agreement that bathrooms are not the right place for this sort of activity and many of the laws addressing this topic actually forbid the use of bathrooms for this purpose. 

Try to provide a room that can be locked from the inside to avoid interruptions.  If the room has windows but no window coverings, you’ll want to ensure dark curtains or some other opaque coverings are installed.

If the designated room is to be a multi-purpose room (i.e., not used solely by new mothers), you’ll need to educate all employees that new moms take priority when they need to use that room. You may have to establish a scheduling process to ensure the room is available when a new mom needs it. However, you should also be flexible with her if her schedule unexpectedly changes and she needs to use it at a time she didn’t reserve. Regardless of whether a new mom is paid on an hourly or salary basis, she may need to take more frequent breaks to express breast milk.  Some things really can’t be rushed!

Try to make the space as comfortable as possible. Think about providing a comfortable chair as well as a workstation in the space, which will allow her to either work or rest depending upon what’s best for her. Also, consider providing a mini fridge in the room for the sole purpose of storing breast milk. A new mom may feel uncomfortable storing her breast milk in the community refrigerator.

2) Be flexible with work schedules and meetings
Assuming parent and child are healthy and there is no legal obligation to provide flexible scheduling, you should nevertheless be open to a request to work part-time initially upon the new parent’s return to work. Such an arrangement might be in the best interest of your employee and your company to ensure a successful transition back to work. After all, your employee might feel completely overwhelmed about leaving her baby at daycare or with a babysitter all day after spending weeks or months at home together.

Also, consider not scheduling mandatory meetings first thing in the morning or at the very end of the day – at least for a while.  As we’ll discuss below, mornings are a new brand of crazy when there is a baby in the house.  You are potentially setting your employee up to fail if you schedule meetings first thing in the morning.  Additionally, if meetings run late in the day, daycare centers are cost-prohibitively punitive to parents who pick up their children late.  If meetings must be scheduled at the start or end of the day, allow employees who have recently returned from parental leave to dial-in to a conference call line.  

A progressive transition back to work, with plenty of common sense flexibility, will likely bring a more successful outcome for the employee and your company.  With time, they’ll develop a rhythm and routine!

3) Be understanding
There were days we’d get to work and wonder why we weren’t receiving standing ovations for surviving the mornings we’d just experienced - and managing to look somewhat presentable to boot!  Babies can make life unpredictable. Consider what your employee may have already experienced before starting work for the day: They may have been walking out the door to drop their baby at daycare when the baby had a massive “blow out,” necessitating not just a change of clothes but a bath too. Maybe the baby woke up sick and your employee had to scramble to find a sitter because the daycare has a policy against taking sick kids. Or maybe your employee was up for hours with a baby who isn’t yet sleeping through the night.

There are so many things that new parents must juggle and it takes some time to master them. So, within reason, be flexible and understanding, especially in the first months after a new parent returns to work.  

If, however, you are noticing your employee is consistently showing up to work unprepared or not delivering the quality of work that is expected in his or her position, it’s important that you address that immediately. As a manager, this is your chance to find out what additional support you may be able to provide to the employee. However, make it clear that there are certain expectations that still must be met.  While you want to do what you can to help your employee succeed, you are not required to alter your standards for the essential job functions she is obligated to meet.

Think of all parents (not just moms) 
When thinking about how you plan to welcome new parents back to work, please don’t forget to include new dads, adoptive parents and partners! Increasingly, new dads and partners are taking extended leaves of absence to bond with their babies and share other responsibilities, like late-night feedings and daycare drop-offs. So, flexibility and understanding should be extended to all new parents returning to work after parental leave. Showing equal support to all employees who face the challenge of new parenthood is not only the right thing to do, especially in this day and age, but also important for the avoidance of unlawful discrimination claims and for the encouragement of employee loyalty, happiness and productivity.

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

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