A note to those who manage moms (and dads)…

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My kids playing office…in my office.

I recently wrote a post about being a mom and having a career. I found that as I was writing that post, I had to resist the urge to add in comments from the point of view of a manager. The solution – write another post!

The thing about being a manager/leader is that people see you differently. When you speak, you speak on behalf of your organization. I knew a senior manager who would often tell the story of walking into work with a bad headache one day. He had his head in his hand as he walked, and likely had a sour expression on his face. Within (seemingly) moments, he was getting questions like “Did our project go off track?”, or “Did the deal fall through?”

The lesson there – people in the organization take their cues from the management. Managers have to be sure the messages they are sending are accurate reflections of the situation.

This brings me to my first thought on moms. As I have mentioned before, women, no matter how many positive experiences they have had and/or read about, are nearly always scared to tell their bosses they are pregnant. This had me wondering why that would be.

When I went back through my own experiences and the stories that have been shared with me, I saw a glimmer of what might be going on. Here are some real statements that I have collected, all from seemingly well-meaning managers:

“She’s going to be out on maternity leave in July? That’s the worst possible time for us to be short staffed.”

“You will be out the whole month of December? Again?” (I had three kids at the end of the year)

“She is pregnant again? I sure wish I could take three months off.”

I even have one for the men: “He’s taking paternity leave now? In the middle of the project?”

The thing is, as managers, we all probably think this way. Being short-staffed, especially at the busiest time of year can be an enormous burden. I can see how it might look like I wanted out of year-end craziness three different times. Three months off does seem like a vacation. And being off in the middle of a project is never convenient.

One thing I know for sure – kids are rarely convenient.

These statements, made by managers, are dangerous. They send a message that the leadership of the company is not supportive of people in this situation. And that is definitely bad for business and bad for the employees.

We need to watch what we say, and better yet, how we think.

In most instances, we managers have plenty of time to plan for these absences. Usually six months or so at least. That is an incredible amount of time! When a person quits, they give us two weeks notice. When they get sick, they give us two minutes. With six months, we can use that time to work with the employee to develop a plan. We can engage the employee in training exercises and documentation. We can turn something that might have been scary into a developmental exercise that empowers the employee rather than sidelines them.

When I was pregnant with my second child, I was a front-line manager. I spent that time developing what I called the “MMP,” or “Melinda’s Maternity Plan.” I empowered myself and my employees to develop a way to cover all of my duties while I was out. My manager was incredibly supportive of this, and in the end, my associates got a chance to develop their leadership skills, and my manager had very little concern over my time out of the office.

This language problem persists after maternity leave. Here are some management quotes that illustrate what this sounds like:

“Her kids are sick again?”

“Doesn’t she have a husband? Can’t he help?”

“He is always leaving early for his kids. Why is he always leaving early for his kids?”

I am not saying we should not hold people accountable. In fact, I think we should do a much better job of holding people accountable than we do today. What I am saying is that words matter. When we say things like this, we show a strong lack of support for families and our employees. This, in turn, will lead to dissatisfied workers, and in the end, a potentially harmful corporate culture.

Here is another thing to watch for – benevolent sexism. Ever hear of this? This is when we think we are doing something nice, but really we are doing something that shows prejudice and/or bias against women. This is always done with good intent, so it can be very hard to detect. It can come from women or men, and it sounds like this:

“With her three young kids, do you think she can handle it?”

“She just got back from maternity leave. I don’t want to overwhelm her.”

“That is going to take some travel – I don’t want to take her away from her kids.”

The very, very important piece that is missing in all of these comments is any discussion with the woman herself. Start with the assumption that she can handle it, she is not overwhelmed, and if it’s going to take some travel, assume she is up to the task. Perhaps she can’t handle it – ask her first. Perhaps she is overwhelmed – check with her first. Perhaps she does not want to travel – discuss this with her to find out, if you have any concerns.

In the end, what we all want is a place to work where we feel supported and valued. As managers, we have the power to make this happen for our associates. Give some thought to how you think and speak about the parents on your team, and be sure your actions show that you support and value them.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – leave a comment or send me a message!

As always, keep it positive and smile! TGIF!!