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Managing parents in the workplace

Matt Chittock

Many bosses see impending motherhood (and sometimes fatherhood) as just a problem to be solved. In fact, managing parents right can boost the business for everybody, says Matt Chittock

“When I announced I was pregnant I felt that most people in my company just gave up on me,” says 36-year-old sales manager mum-of-one Clair Parker*.
“Before I had [my daughter] Lucy there was always plenty of banter about ‘pregnancy brain’ – and that was OK. But when I came back after maternity leave I just wasn’t given the respect I used to have. Colleagues would blatantly call in sick with hangovers, but when I had to work from home when Lucy was ill it was made clear to me that I should treat it as a big favour. It really annoyed me – I felt I was being abandoned by people I used to see as friends.”
Many mums (and more than a few dads) in the UK have stories just like Ruth’s.

According to recent research from The Fawcett Society, when a woman has a baby, almost half (46%) of people instantly believe she becomes less committed to her job. This perceived lack of commitment means that managers all too often fail to engage with mothers and mothers-to-be. Because of the negative view that parenthood is a business problem to be overcome, rather than an opportunity to engage (and therefore retain) staff, employees can feel they’re getting a raw deal.

But what if managers could turn the issue on its head? What if, rather than seeing parenthood as simply a burdensome problem to be solved, parents could be seen as an asset to the office that are well worth keeping?

Lisa Barnwell, from Bumps and the Boardroom, is passionate that parents can actually bring clear positives to the office. She’s currently setting up an online network where parents from all industries can share best practice with corporates looking to engage with them.

“One big thing I think parents bring to the office after maternity/paternity leave is a renewed sense of focus,” says Barnwell. “So many mothers I speak to say that the days are gone in which they’d spend a lot of time chatting to their colleagues about non-work subjects. Time is now very precious to them and they’re extremely focused on proving themselves and getting results. I think that also they no longer want to sweat the small stuff. They develop an ability to analyse what the important part of a project is, and then get the results they need. There’s also people skills. When they’re dealing with children, parents get very good at reading situations. Their skills at managing, and reading, human behaviour expands exponentially.”

Plus, in a depressed job market many parents are very happy just to be in gainful employment (especially since there’s now another mouth to feed). So while bosses might expect them to be less loyal to the company, the opposite may in fact be true.

So how can managers make sure they retain parents’ potential special talents? In part, it’s about making sure the lines of communication are open between all parties and negotiating a situation that works well for everyone.

“When someone announces they’re pregnant, colleagues may genuinely be happy for them, but also thinking ‘Oh no – we’re going to have to pick up the slack when they’re on maternity leave’,” says Barnwell. It’s the manager’s job to engineer a solution that shows this isn’t true. But Barnwell adds that some of the responsibility has to be shouldered by the employee too.

“One thing I advise employees to do is to start on a flexible way of working before maternity leave,” says Barnwell. “That way, everybody can see how it works: the employee, their boss and their team included. It’s a way to show people that flexible working isn’t just an obligation a company has to undergo, but can also be a positive way to work.”

Barnwell also says that mutual trust from both sides is essential. If a mother-to-be feels she can announce a pregnancy earlier, then all sides can work to put the necessary support in place. Beyond this, it’s important to remember that, though parents do need tailored engagement in order to feel part of the team, so do the rest of your staff.

“It’s about being a smarter, more open manager whether staff are mothers, fathers, or just people with other things also going on in their lives,” says Barnwell. “Try and develop a strong, personal connection to your team and look at flexibility for everyone. After all, whether you’re a parent or not, if you feel fulfilled you’re always going to be a more productive member of staff.”

*Not her real name.

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