When conception is discovered, preparations begin. You decorate the nursery, enroll in childbirth classes and, of course, read your employee handbook. What? Read the employee handbook? Yes. In preparation for motherhood, a woman in the workforce needs to take steps to prepare herself and her employer for maternity leave. While childproofing your home and making it safe for a new addition to the family, take the steps needed to childproof your career and secure your professional future.

Before You Tell the Boss

Accommodating an expectant mother can seem daunting to an employer. The key to making a successful transition from working woman to working mother without stepping on anyone’s toes lies in the approach. Dr. Sarah Beth Estes, assistant sociology professor and affiliate of the Kunz Center for the Study of Work and Family at the University of Cincinnati, recommends being “strategic” when preparing for maternity leave. Dr. Estes says by developing a strategic plan for your return to work, you show your employer that you are committed to the company and your career. It shows your employer that any challenges you may face during your pregnancy, maternity leave or as a working mother, will be addressed so that the “solution to your challenges, also benefits the company.”

Your Legal Rights

The first step in creating your strategic plan is to know your legal rights. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), qualifying employers are required to give 12 weeks of unpaid paternity/maternity leave. The 12 weeks can be taken in one chunk or it can be used in smaller segments. You may also use the 12 weeks by working shorter workweeks or fewer hours in the day. The only exception to this 12-week rule is if you and your spouse work for the same company. Then the 12-week leave must be shared between the two of you. One person may take the whole 12 weeks or you may split the time.

The problem with this law is the fact that it only pertains to “qualifying companies.” If you work for a small company of less than 50 employees, the company does not “qualify” and the FMLA does not apply to you. In that case you must rely on your company’s policy, which brings us to the next step.

Know Your Company’s Policy

Maternity leave policies vary from company to company, which makes it difficult to nail down a standard for expectant mothers. But if you know a few starting places for sifting through the company protocol, then you may find planning a strategy a little easier.

Sometimes the process is as easy as flipping to the part of the handbook titled “Maternity Leave.” Though many times you will have to search through the company information to see how leave is handled. You may find the essentials listed under the short-term disability policy, or in your medical benefits package. If you still cannot find policy information, ask. Then put it in writing in a non-threatening way. Say something like, “So we have it on hand in the future, why don’t I just type that up for you?” This way you are doing your company a favor while making sure there are no misunderstandings down the road.

Telling the Boss

Telling your employer should involve more than an, “I’m pregnant!” shouted through the corridors of the office. Instead, schedule a formal meeting. The meeting doesn’t have to be rigid and impersonal, but it does have to address very specific issues. Make sure you have organized your career intentions on paper. This way, your boss will be confident in your plans to return to work.

Try to see the situation through the eyes of your company, and address the issues that you think may cause concern for your employer. The hard truth is that your maternity leave creates a gap by removing a high-efficiency employee. This gap is either filled by a trained replacement, or it remains a gap while coworkers overextend themselves to compensate for your absence. By having a detailed career plan in writing, this eases your boss’s anxiety about losing you during maternity leave. Plus, it protects you by letting the company know what you expect when you return.

The FMLA requires employers to return employees who were on leave to either the exact position they had before or to one that is equivalent with equal benefits and pay, and substantially equivalent skill, effort, responsibility and authority. According to civil rights attorney Christian Jenkins of Mezibov & Jenkins, LLP, this is where most employers fall short. He says companies sometimes try to get around this portion of the law by “eliminating the [new mother’s] position while she is on leave and then hiring someone else to perform the same duties.”

That is exactly what happened to Gail Kent. After returning from maternity leave, Gail was told that the company had undergone “reorganization.” Her job as administrative assistant no longer existed and the person who filled her position while she was on leave assumed the new position of “office manager.” The new position just so happened to have the same responsibilities as the administrative assistant job, prior to Gail’s leave.

To prevent this from happening, you want to address these issues when you initially tell the employer you are expecting. To prepare for this, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you plan to return to the same position that you left?
  • Will you return on a part or full-time basis?
  • When will your leave begin? Will you wait until you go into labor?

If you are still unsure about how to put your plan in writing, www.workoptions.com offers a template with step-by-step suggestions on how to write your maternity leave proposal.

While On Maternity Leave

After the baby is born, you will want to call work and tell everyone about your new little one. Contact should not stop there. One big mistake that new moms make is that they do not check in while on leave. Call your supervisor once a week. Let him or her know that if they need any help, they can call you. Find out how they are handling your absence so you know what to expect when you return. When making these phone calls, be prepared to deal with territorial feelings if someone else answers your phone extension. Remind yourself it is only temporary, and offer to help in any way possible. By retaining a presence in the office via phone check-ins, you remind the office that you plan to return to your position.

Returning to Work

On your final week of maternity leave, call your supervisor and talk about your return. If possible, re-enter your position on a Wednesday or Thursday. The separation for you and your child will be less heart-wrenching if you know that the weekend is close. Also, if any childcare issues arise, you can hopefully deal with them over a weekend instead of disrupting your first week back in the office.

On your first day back, sit down with your boss and the person who was filling in for you. You need to catch up on what work needs to be completed, where any projects stand and how your supervisor expects you to proceed. Remember to thank the person who filled in for you.

When Things Go Wrong

Even though your intentions are put into writing, it is done so several months before your leave. Once you actually go on maternity leave, the plan becomes a reality. This is where the difficulty often arises. Someone else has taken over your responsibilities, and after weeks of performing these responsibilities, the company adjusts to a new working environment. This can make the return to work much more challenging for your employer than the leave itself. This challenge opens the door to potential FMLA violations, which attorney Jenkins says “can be devastating to a family with a new addition.”

What to Do

First, start with company policy. If you feel you are not being treated according to company guidelines or in accordance with the FMLA, you should take appropriate steps to complain. The hardest thing about complaining is you may have to complain about your boss, to your boss. Keep good records about what was said, when it was said and who other than yourself witnessed the conversation. File a formal complaint in writing with two people. Consult your employee handbook to find out who would be the appropriate person to file a complaint with.

Many times inappropriate behavior can be taken care of within the company. Gail Kent took appropriate action within the company when her direct supervisor wrote her up for “excessive sick leave use” when she returned from maternity leave. Gail filed a formal appeal through human resources and got the reprimand reversed.

Legal Action

If your rights have been violated, you may want to consider filing a free claim with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Go to www.dol.gov or call (800)827-5335. You can also file a lawsuit in federal court within two years of the violating incident. It is not required that you have an attorney, however, Jenkins says, “It is the most effective way to vindicate your rights.”

When preparing for the changes that a new child brings, don’t forget to prepare your career, too. Knowing your legal rights and your company’s policies allows you to prepare for your family’s future while securing your spot on the corporate ladder.

  • Bonnie Manning

    Bonnie Manning is a freelance writer. In addition to teaching two writing classes for the University of Cincinnati Communiversity and writing for various publications, Manning is a contributing editor for Pilot Getaways Magazine as well as a regular contributor to All About Kids parenting magazine.