Hearing The News: A Line Manager's Guide to the Pregnant Employee

d&i strategies managing working parents maternity leave pregnancy Dec 19, 2017

Upon hearing that an employee is pregnant, your first feeling as a line manager is likely to be panic. Even though you are happy for your colleague, you know it’s going to be a stressful time ahead for you.

Managing a team member through pregnancy, maternity leave, and beyond can be a minefield to navigate, but there are ways to make things easier for yourself. Here are some of the ways you can best prepare yourself for the conversations that may follow after your employee informs you they are expecting.

Be Human

Your first response should be to congratulate your employee. This is both an exciting and scary time, and the beginning of a life changing event for her. She will be going through a range of emotions and is likely to be very sensitive to your reaction, so you need to be sympathetic to that in your tone. Remember that as a line manager, how your treat your staff is likely to affect the way they see and respond to you as well as the quality of their work.

Know The Rules

A lack of knowledge around what is and isn’t expected or allowed from an HR and legal perspective is the main cause of discrimination claims, so make sure you are in-the-know. Schedule time to research your legal obligations if you do not already know them and to research your organisation’s maternity policy and flexible working policy (or develop them, if you do not already have them), to provide to your employee.

It’s easy to make judgement calls in the moment based on your own feelings or what you believe to be common sense, but it’s not as simple as that. Unless you are 100% confident on the rules, always say “I’ll get back to you on that.”

Check The Dates

This is really important for effective planning and preparation. Once you have made sure your employee feels at ease and reassured that everything will be ok, you need to cover all the practical stuff. Check your employee knows her obligations of what to provide in writing and when.

Agree a date for a meeting with her to start planning a smooth transition and, if necessary, a risk assessment. You will need to know if she’s had any specific advice relating to work from her doctor or midwife and identify key dates:

  • Baby’s due date

  • Dates of antenatal appointments

  • Provisional dates for maternity leave

  • Provisional date of return to work

Maternity leave will affect more than just the pregnant employee. Colleagues may be expected to take on some of their work or help train a new member of staff, so care may be needed when breaking the news to the rest of the team. Agree dates to create a handover plan, keep in touch plan, performance review and back to work plan, with input from colleagues.

All your plans need to be made loosely, as there are no certainties when it comes to childbirth! Babies usually come when they are ready (and some way before then) so use the due date as a rough guide. Also take into account that a pregnant woman cannot predict how she will feel towards the end of her pregnancy, let alone when she will feel ready to return to work, so make sure your plans give her some leeway.

Tread Carefully

One of your principal concerns as a line manager will be about meeting operational requirements and the possible impact on the business. However you must not make decisions on behalf of your pregnant employee based on your own assumptions.

For example, it is discriminatory for a warehouse manager to move a pregnant woman to a desk job that pays less because he decides the environment is too dangerous for her. Be mindful of your own unconscious biases about pregnant women. You may be surprised at what they can still do and every individual pregnancy is different, so keep an open mind.

On the other hand, ignoring someone who is having difficulty performing isn’t advised. If your pregnant employee tells you she is struggling and/or makes an accommodation request, suggest that she discusses it with her doctor. It’s a good idea for you to have a recommendation from a health professional before making any decisions.

Accommodate, Accommodate, Accommodate!

When Sales Professional Sophie became pregnant, she was concerned that her long working hours and frequent overtime would negatively affect her baby. However her contract required her to continue working her set hours per week and work overtime when required (which was regularly).

She knew that maternal stress in the early months of pregnancy can affect fetal brain development and can lead to low birth weight and preterm labour, so she went to her doctor for advice. Her doctor recommended that she needed to work fewer hours to reduce her stress levels as soon as possible, particularly as her blood pressure was a concern.

When Sophie went to her line manager to explain how she felt and make the request, she was asked to keep a diary of her stress levels alongside her working hours and the type of task she was doing for two weeks. The aim of this method was to try and establish what part(s) of Sophie’s job was causing her stress, so that they could be smarter in their resolution.

The problem with this is that it took too long. A month later no solution had yet been agreed upon or put in place, and Sophie was feeling increasingly stressed and exhausted. After a worrying checkup with her midwife with increased blood pressure readings alongside reduced fetal movements, Sophie took matters into her own hands. She told her line manager that she would be working fewer hours and would no longer available for overtime before the baby arrived. If that was to affect her pay then so be it.

This is a common story. Pregnant women too often have to make the choice between risking their health and that of their unborn child, or taking a pay cut at a time when they most need the money. Even though the requests are only for temporary adjustments, many organisations automatically refuse to accommodate pregnant employees. This is how many companies lose their top female performers and create negative cultures for women in the workplace.

The most common accommodation requests are from workers who stand all day in one place. Pregnant women should be able to sit for at least 10 minutes every hour, so providing something for them to sit on for short periods can make a huge difference. Sitting all day is also bad for pregnant women, so they should be allowed to get up and stretch their legs at least once every hour.

Requests for pregnancy accommodation should be handled in the same way as those for a disability. What would the process be if the employee had a back injury or needed adjustments to her work schedule for cancer treatments?  The response should be the same.

We work with forward thinking organisations and their employees to better understand and proactively manage the impact of parenthood, focusing on the key transitional periods: pre-, during and post- maternity and paternity. By combining our e-learning platform, Thrive Online, with practical master-classes, group and individual coaching, we ensure working parents, line managers and HR has access to our knowledge and expertise. Click here to learn more.

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