There is only one time the words “I’m pregnant” are more terrifying than when you’re a small business owner.
However unlike that OTHER situation where that phrase might send you into a panic, when you own a small business there are a lot of things you can do to prepare for this kind of big announcement. The Family Medical and Leave Act (FMLA) actually helps you along in the process with some handy federal guidelines to follow, but if your business has under 50 people those don’t apply to you.
So, what’s a small business owner to do when faced with the prospect of losing a top employee to an 8-pound bundle of joy? Technically, you don’t have to do anything. But if you want to keep your company intact, here are some tips.
Have a Policy in Place
If you’re a company with over 50 employees, take a good long look at the FMLA before drafting any kind of policy. You are, at the bare minimum, required to give 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. But the regulations may not stop there. Also take a look at EEOC’s statute’s for pregnancy and the Americans with Disabilities Act to see what other rules your business might need to follow. And your state might have some rules too, so check and see what there are here.
If your company has fewer than 50 employees, then you’re off the legal hook. But by no means does that mean you don’t need to offer some kind of maternity leave package. In this day and age, with over 75 percent of women in child-bearing years in the workforce, not giving any type of maternity leave is basically like making people work on Christmas.
How you tailor your policy is up to you, but in an article for the Harvard Business Review Karen Firestone, President and CEO of Aureus Asset Management, says that a well-detailed plan can actually be a valuable recruiting tool for prospective employees. She says six weeks of paid leave is what you’ll need to offer - at the bare minimum - to be competitive.
Paternity leave is another issue to examine, and while not as de facto mandatory as maternity leave it will still earn you valuable employee loyalty if it’s something you grant. No, men don’t actually have the baby, but new mothers need help and if the father is forced to stay at work it puts an unneeded strain on the new parents.
Start Planning From the Get-Go
Much like people start picking out nursery colors and cruising the aisles at Baby Gap as soon as they find out they’re pregnant, so should you start planning for maternity leave from the minute an employee states she’s pregnant. And this means figuring out who is going to be picking up the slack.
A lot of larger companies have redundancies in jobs, meaning that there are multiple people who do the same thing. But if your business has fewer than 50 people, that’s not going to be the case. So from day one, take a look at your future-parent’s workload and start dividing up who is going to be doing what. Just make sure you’re assigning it to capable people.
Another option is hiring on a temporary replacement. While you don’t need to start looking into this until later in the pregnancy, the earlier you get this arranged the better, so you can arrange for some overlap and training time for the temporary worker. While temp agencies can be helpful, if your employee has a special skill set that may be difficult for a temp, look into hiring an independent contractor for that job.
Finally, if you’ve got an overachieving whiz kid on your staff who’s been bothering you to take on more responsibility, this is the perfect time to give him or her the opportunity. Assuming this person is not all pep and no product, it will serve the dual purpose of lightening the additional workload for the rest of the staff, and gives you a better cross-trained employee moving forward.
However you plan to cover the position, make sure your employee who is going on leave writes down in excruciating detail what her job responsibilities are. Like so an 8 year old could do the job. And make sure you approve the instructions so she’s not scrawling everything on a legal pad, leaving it on her desk, and telling you “yeah, I took care of that.”
During the Leave
While a new mother will undoubtedly be busy during her leave, if she goes three months without any contact with the company, coming back might be tough. In England, companies actually have mandatory KIT (Keep in Touch, in case you haven’t looked at your 7th grade yearbook in a while) days where an employee on maternity leave is required to check in and keep updated on the status of the company. And while not required in America, making KIT days a part of your policy will go a long way to make a smooth transition back.
And don’t be afraid to call someone on maternity leave if there’s a procedural question about her job. Surprisingly most mothers actually welcome some sort of work-related contact as a break from the daily sleepless grind that is new motherhood.
Returning to Work
You may not recognize the tired, much-thinner looking person who walks back into the shop on her first day back from maternity leave. And getting back into the flow of coming into work every day may be equally unrecognizable for her. So throwing an employee right back in to a 50-hour work week might not be the most immediately-productive thing to do.
One or two days a week at first is probably best, as the new mother sets up child care and other logistics of her work return. But make sure you outline a return in your maternity leave policy, and what the pay structure will be for the reduced hours. Typically, you shouldn’t count this phased-in return as part of the actual leave, and plan for temporary work and/or work reassignment accordingly.
So really, there’s no reason to panic when an employee drops the pregnancy bomb on you. With a firm policy, a plan with foresight, and a phased-in return your company might never even notice the person’s gone. Just don’t tell her that.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net