Welcoming Back Mom

By Alison Stein Wellner Jun 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, June 2004 Luring new mothers and stay-at-home parents back to work needs to begin before they leave.

Employers don’t like to see talent walk out the door, but maternity leave for women of child-rearing age inevitably leads to occasional departures.

Because it’s desirable to retain proven professionals who already know a company’s culture and business, persuading new mothers to return to the company after maternity leave has become a rising priority for many employers.

Of course, whether to quit a job to care for a baby or children is an intensely personal decision that may leave career a distant second. But employers are making special efforts to let expectant moms—and mothers who pause their careers to care for children—know they are welcome back.

Such efforts are so important at the New York-based accounting firm KPMG that they begin even before an employee leaves to give birth.

When an expectant mother informs KPMG’s human resource department that she intends to take maternity leave, the company spells out its various parental leave benefits—but with a twist: The information is tucked into a kind of shower gift, a new-parent kit that is sent to the employee’s home and includes a rattle, a baby bottle and a toddler-size T-shirt that says, “My Mom Works at KPMG.”

The gift kit, inaugurated this year, is designed to be a sweetener in a collection of perks aimed at encouraging women who take maternity leave to consider returning to KPMG. “It’s just another way to recognize the event and let them know what options we have available to them,” says Joe Maiorano, the firm’s executive director of human resources.

Those options include two weeks of paid maternity leave (paternity leave is available to fathers as well), the minimum five weeks of paid time off that all employees receive for vacation and sick days, and the 12 weeks of unpaid leave mandated by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. In addition, the company offers flexible schedules to mothers returning to work, as well as a two-year leave of absence program for employees who feel they need to spend more time out of the workplace.

“We want our employees to feel that the firm is supportive of them as individuals,” Maiorano says. He notes that it’s also a retention initiative. KPMG wants to increase its number of women partners to 20 percent by 2007, up from the current 14 percent. So far, the efforts to bring new mothers back to the firm appear to be working: Only about 12 percent of those who go out on maternity leave don’t return.

A Staffing Strategy

Persuading new mothers to return to work is an imperative for many companies, says Roslyn Duda, founder of CorporateHOPE, a Vienna, Va., consulting firm that specializes in women’s issues. Nearly three in 10 employed women who become pregnant quit their job before giving birth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Moreover, the agency reports, in 2000, 55 percent of mothers with infant children were in the workforce, down from the record 59 percent in 1998, which represented the first decline since 1976. In 2002, the figure still stood at 55 percent.

And even when new mothers do decide to return to work after having a baby, there’s no assurance that they’ll choose the company they left. About 22 percent of women who return to work within a year of having their first child go to a different employer, the Census Bureau has found.

Companies that offer arrangements such as part-time work, job sharing, telecommuting and flexible scheduling should spell out those options in detail even before a woman departs on maternity leave, says Christine D’Amico, founder of the Companion Group, a San Diego-based coaching service for people in transition, and author of The Pregnant Woman’s Companion (Attitude Press, 2002).

The reason employers should start early, experts say, is because many women start early—making decisions while pregnant about how they’ll handle their working life after the baby is born. And some are unaware of options their employer may offer to ease their return to work. “I know so many women who just left their jobs and never even asked for what they wanted because they just assumed there would be no way to get it within their organization,” says D’Amico.

Reaching out to expectant mothers is about retention, says Debbie Phillips, senior consultant at WFD Consulting, formerly Work Family Directions, in Boston. Approach the employee “when [she] is on the fence about her decision,” Phillips says. “It’s here where having benefits and flexible options are key. That gives the employer the opportunity to retain the employee in the workforce rather than lose her.”

Easing the Transition

Convincing a new or expectant mother that she should come back, experts say, requires, among other things, assuring her that the company understands the challenges she faces, is committed to easing the transition during her first months back on the job and doesn’t view her absence for child care as a career liability.

At AFLAC, the major life and health insurer based in Columbus, Ga., “the thing we try to do is offer benefits and services that help them to get into a routine,” says Audrey Boone Tillman, senior vice president and director of human resources. “It’s enough of an adjustment coming back to work,” she says.

“As many things as we can take off the plate of returning parents, the better we think it is,” says Tillman. “We’ve got on-site child care—the largest corporate on-site child care in Georgia. Through our on-site cafeteria, we offer fully cooked meals to go; you can pick up a hot meal for your family, which cuts down on the stress of arriving home and figuring out what to make for dinner. We offer subsidized baby-sitting services on Saturday, so mom can have a night out with dad, or so that you don’t have to worry about attending a company social function, little things like that.

“Even if you haven’t [taken leave] to have a child, you’re aware that we offer things like this. I can speak personally: I’ve had three children since I’ve been at AFLAC. I was out 12 weeks with each of them, and I knew going out that there were lots of examples of working mothers doing well in the company.”

A Matter of Time

One of the most attractive benefits for new mothers is flexible scheduling. It has proved to be a boon to retaining new mothers as well as reducing overall turnover at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

“We found that when employees go out on maternity leave, they typically take three months off,” says Barbara Bowman, chief human resource officer at Children’s Memorial. “But at the end of three months, we found that many people who really had planned to come back, didn’t.” It was a big problem for the hospital; 80 percent of its workers are women.

In response to the problem, Children’s Memorial made a number of changes in 2000. One was to make scheduling more flexible, allowing nurses to work three 12-hour shifts or office staff members to work four 10-hour shifts. Another change was to drop the number of hours in a two-week full-time work period to 72 hours from 80. This improved the appeal of flexible scheduling because it lowered the number of hours necessary to qualify for full-time benefits.

The hospital also lifted its cap on the number of part-time positions it could accommodate. “A lot of hospitals budget for only a certain number of part-time positions,” Bowman says, so a worker who wanted part-time hours would have to “wait for a part-time position to come along. We realized that was counterproductive.” Now, employees can opt to work part time when they decide it’s necessary.

The hospital’s turnover has been cut by more than half, to 13 percent now from 28 percent six years ago, Bowman notes, “and we credit part of that with more people returning after maternity leave.”

When Time Is Too Short

For some women who leave to have a baby, the biggest inducement to coming back may be the option of staying away longer. No matter how flexible a company’s scheduling or how family-friendly its culture, that may not be enough for women who want longer than the usual maternity leave. The key to retaining them may be an extended leave of absence program.

Such a program has been a plus at IBM Corp., headquartered in Armonk, N.Y. Typically, at any given time, about 1,500 of IBM’s 200,000 U.S.-based employees are on leaves of absence that can be extended to as long as three years. About 90 percent of the employees on leave are women, and most are using the leave for child care, says Maria S. Ferris, manager of work/life and women’s initiatives at IBM.

Employees on leave continue to receive health benefits, and they are required to check in with their manager at least once a year to determine if the leave will continue. Many touch base more often. “It’s very typical for the employee to maintain regular contact with the manager,” says Ferris. “We encourage our managers to touch base with their employees out on leave at least every couple of months.

“This is a retention program for us,” Ferris explains. “We don’t want to bring the talent into the company, invest in that talent and have them leave.” And the program appears to work. When IBM surveyed its employees in 2001, it discovered that 59 percent of those who had taken leave said that if they hadn’t been able to do so, they would have left IBM.

Such extended-leave programs may become more common. KPMG, for example, has begun studying whether to extend its leave program to five years from two years, says Maiorano. “We’re looking at what type of information we should make available to our professionals who have opted into a longer-term leave program, so that they can remain current in professional education requirements, and considering how we can continue to give them access to the firm, including training opportunities,” he says.

Training also is an important element of an extended-leave program that the New York-based auditing and consulting firm Deloitte & Touche plans to unveil later this year. Company spokeswoman Mai J. Browne says the program, called Personal Pursuits, will allow partners and employees to take an unpaid leave of absence but continue to get the training needed to keep their skills and licenses current. They would be expected to return to the company within five years.

IBM has learned that it’s helpful to pair extended-leave programs with an option for part-time work when the employee is ready to make the transition back to the workplace, says Ferris. Consultant Phillips says a “slow re-entry” can seem less daunting.

‘They Find Their Way Back’

To be sure, even generous leave programs may not tip the scales in favor of returning to work for a new mother who has decided to remain at home. “I think there’s a reality that if an employee makes a personal decision not to come back once the baby is born, it’s really, really difficult to change that person’s mind,” says Phillips.

Even in those circumstances, however, some employers don’t give up, Phillips adds. Instead, she says, they resolve to keep the lines of communication open, making sure that a manager or an HR professional keeps in touch with former employees—and that the employees know there will be a spot for them at the company should they ever change their mind and wish to return to work.

In the past, Bowman of Children’s Memorial Hospital has sent letters to all employees who have left within the previous year, but she has found that she gets plenty of “alumni” returning without a formal letter. “We have an unusual number of people who are boomerang employees,” she says. Once employees have decided they’re ready to return, she says, they generally find their way back—as long as the employer has created a supportive culture.

Alison Stein Wellner is a freelance business writer based in New Yok City.

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