When I worked in HR some of my most difficult conversations were with women talking to their boss about how they’d return to work from maternity or adoption leave. I was always surprised by just how tough it was; a highly talented, loyal employee wants to come back to work meets reasonable, understanding employer who wants her back. You might wonder what could possibly go wrong? A lot, as it turns out.
Over the last year, I’ve being thinking about this a lot. I became a mum in early 2018 and it’s given me a new perspective on this conversation. I was always an empathetic HR person, someone renowned for understanding the human side of business and I thought I understood what it was like to be a returning mum. I realise now that I didn’t have a clue; that what I understood was the business challenge.
As I bring together my experience as an HR professional, coach and mum, I can see so clearly that it’s time to think about the conversation differently.
In many ways, the conversation with a mum returning to work is a negotiation. This perhaps sounds transactional but it’s not. It’s about two sides of a human story coming together to a place that works for everyone. More importantly, it’s about two sides hearing and understanding the other’s situation and perspective, understanding what’s truly important and what can give. It’s about being honest with ourselves and with each other.
And this is when it gets interesting. Most businesses I know have policies in place that drive how people are managed. Many of the polices themselves are driven by employment law, written to protect the business. The policies are typically employed in a fairly strict way, without deviation or thoughtful consideration for the issue that the manager is actually tackling. Policies tend to be one size fits all. Except, we’re all individuals; with individual behaviours, dealing with individual circumstances.
When you stop and think about applying the ‘one policy for all’ to returning mums, you can see it’s problematic. The thing is, every mum is an individual and there are many variables that effect how and when she returns to work; her child’s health, how her child sleeps, her immediate support network, her ongoing childcare options, her commute, whether she’s a single mum or the higher-earner, her job role, her desire for her career and many other things too. Close up, no two mums have the same concerns.
This means that each mum needs something different to the mum before her and the mum after her that will enable her to return to work. It means one policy doesn’t fit all. And so how can we look at it differently?
I’m wondering if it’s time for all businesses to have simplify their maternity, adoption and flexible working policies. To simply say, our policy isto treat each woman as an individual, responding to what she needs to enable her to make a successful return to work.This means that mums in the same business may get different support than others yet it also means more mums will come back to work, more valued talent is retained and more loyalty is made.
Having a policy to treat people differently would be a brave shift for many businesses and granted; to work with an open policy takes a mindset that’s willing to explore possibilities and opportunities; it takes leaders willing to be creative and experimental, leaders prepared to challenge the norms and work with mums to find the right balance for everyone. It’s also potentially barking mad. Either way, I can’t help but feel it’s time for change.
We’re in a time when economists are predicting huge skills shortages in the UK. Surely then, it makes sense that businesses get brave about this. By being brave, you won’t miss out on this diverse, brilliant, super-charged talent pool; a pool that will only grow as more dads chose to share leave and more young take on caring responsibilities of the elderly.
Are you ready to think differently?