How Bosses Really Feel About Mat Leave

Employers talk honestly about parental leave

TEN YEARS AGO, WHEN OTTAWA INCREASED parental leave from 10 weeks to 35, bosses across the country quietly panicked. Combined with 15 weeks of maternity leave, the legislative change meant that companies would have to reserve a mother’s job for a year. In an anonymous survey conducted in Alberta at the time, anxious employers predicted heightened workplace tensions and potential discrimination against young job seekers. “People in childbearing years will be at a disadvantage when it comes to new positions opening up,” warned one, while another admitted, “We have learned to avoid hiring people we feel will be having families.”

Today, the year-long mat leave is standard practice, while parental perks such as salary top-ups, extra health benefits and flextime options have become commonplace expectations, especially among the generation Y. Yet even as employers accommodate parents, particularly in fields that fiercely compete for talent, their concerns haven’t changed much from a decade ago. Many businesses struggle with the financial and efficiency burdens of filling temporary positions, especially if they’re senior or highly skilled roles. They can’t be sure if the new parents will return after their leaves or choose to cut back their workload—or quit altogether. Meanwhile, resentment may brew among remaining staff forced to shoulder extra work demands. Perhaps worst of all, employers can’t even complain. Coming out against parental benefits would be like mourning sweatshops and sexual harassment.

The rare employer who publicly voices the management’s predicament faces a torrent of criticism. In the U.K., where parental policies are roughly comparable to Canada’s, a politician who recently suggested that maternity policies may dissuade companies from hiring women was lambasted in the media, while two years earlier, the editor of Vogue drew fire for an editorial titled, “Year-long maternity leave, flexi hours and four day weeks…why would ANY boss hire a woman?” She complained that returning mothers wanted their old jobs with all the pay and authority, but also shorter workweeks and the freedom to leave early for day care pickups and dance recitals. “While employers certainly should have a duty to care for their employees,” she wrote, “shouldn’t employees in turn have a certain duty of responsibility to their job?” Many managers, no doubt, quietly raised a collective fist. Finally, someone—a mother, no less—had said what they had been thinking: that perhaps the pendulum had swung too far in favour of the employee.

The issue is likely to get more contentious as male employees increasingly take advantage of parental benefits. According to Statistics Canada, last year nearly 30% of fathers took at least some leave to be with their new baby—up from 3% a decade earlier. Most of these fathers are in Quebec, the only jurisdiction to offer a paid leave specifically for dads. But the province’s adoption of dedicated paternity benefits may be the first step in a larger, countrywide shift. As government policies adjust to accommodate changing social norms and demographics, employers will have little choice but to seek ways to proactively manage—and leverage—family-friendly benefits.

But they won’t like it. Daniel Lublin, an employment lawyer with Whitten & Lublin LLP in Toronto, offers a candid response when asked what managers think about parental leave: “They hate it.” Although he usually represents the employees in workplace disputes, Lublin understands the employer position. “Companies need to be able to react to the market. They don’t like being hamstrung by an obligation to reinstate someone, especially someone who [may not have been] great to begin with.”

The law gives them no choice, however. Compared with other developed countries, our parental benefits rank somewhere between the United States’ measly 12 unpaid weeks and, say, Sweden’s 16-month paid leave. In Canada, Employment Insurance covers 55% of new mothers’ annual earnings (to a maximum of $44,200) for 50 weeks. (There’s a two-week unpaid waiting period.) In 2006, Quebec introduced its own parental plan offering 70% of earnings up to $64,000, plus a five-week paternity leave for men. Beyond paying into EI, Canadian companies front no direct parental leave costs unless they choose to offer top-ups over and above the 55%. Most businesses don’t. Only about half of public-sector employees get top-ups, as do roughly one in five parents who work for corporations—usually big firms in competitive fields.

There is, however, plenty of expense that comes with managing an employee’s year-long absence, starting with finding a temporary replacement. Job advertising costs, plus the fees for a recruiter to scout for candidates, review resumés, interview, do reference checks and negotiate the offer terms are just the beginning. Add to that training expenses for the newcomer. And if there’s an overlap between the temporary and the outgoing employee to ease the transition, companies pay double wages and EI contributions for that period. “Even if an internal person fills a mat leave, there’s the domino effect within the organization,” says Margaret de Gruchy, a recruitment and retention specialist in B.C., “because while Sally is filling the temporary position, Sue has to fill Sally’s job, but then who will fill Sue’s job?”

Sometimes, finding an external replacement is simply not feasible, says Corinne Pohlmann, vice-president of national affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB). “We’ve had members tell us that the types of jobs they have are so technically specific that you have to get trained every six months,” she says. “So when someone’s gone for a year, it’s almost like they come back as a new employee, and the training costs are then double because the employer has to first train the replacement and then retrain the person coming back.”

The higher the outgoing employee’s level of responsibility, the more complex the challenge. Filling a temporary, entry-level position in a well-supplied field like human resources or IT isn’t terribly tough. But for senior or specialized roles—positions that are hard to fill in the first place—temporary hires are practically unheard of. “You wouldn’t often get someone like that in for just a year,” says de Gruchy, so “employers tend to go internal.” This usually means work gets shunted onto other managers, who end up overseeing two departments and in turn may have to offload work to someone else, she says.

At Monsanto Canada, which offers generous top-ups (to 90% for 26 weeks), it’s not the financial outlay that is onerous (the company spent $150,000 on parental leave top-ups for seven people in 2010 on annual revenues of $750 million). Rather, it’s the logistical wizardry required to replace higher-ups. When a senior manager recently went on mat leave, “everyone had to raise their game and take on more responsibility,” says Cathy Pickard, director of HR in Saskatoon. “Some of the managers may have felt a little pain,” she admits, “especially during those times when we had difficulty bringing in new people.”

Such situations can breed morale problems, which are easy to spot but difficult to treat. Discontent can brew among co-workers who are left to pick up the slack during a mat leave, then sometimes watch as their absentee colleague gets promoted upon her or his return. Kellie Auld, a veteran HR consultant in Kamloops, B.C., recalls that during her stint at a credit union, an employee was promoted after being on mat leave for 10 months. “By law, we could not treat the employee any differently than if she had been at work, so she was eligible for competitions,” Auld says. “And yes, there were employee complaints.”

Bringing temps on the scene can soothe work distribution issues, especially if the newcomers are reliable, quick learners. But if they’re that good, chances are they’ll leave early for something better—i.e., permanent. “The temp is always looking for more secure employment, and when they pull out, you are truly scrambling,” says a manager at a unionized not-for-profit who asked not be named. “And then sometimes toward the end of the mat leave, [the new parent] decides to not to come back. You feel the crafters of the mat-leave legislation set you up as a patsy.”

Such last-minute resignations are particularly frustrating for employers. “A lot of parents don’t understand that if they don’t plan on coming back, they don’t have to wait until the end of the year to tell the employer,” says Pohlmann of CFIB. “There’s a fear they’ll lose their benefits. So by the time they do tell [their managers], the employer has already let go their temporary person.” Though most provinces stipulate employees give their bosses a return date after parental leave, only Alberta and Ontario have legislated that employees give notice if they do not intend to return. “It was an important victory for [businesses] because it allowed some insurance to the employer,” Pohlmann says of Alberta’s decade-old legislation. “Some provinces have no such requirement, and the employer just has to wait it out until the employee contacts them.”

For companies that have an especially hard time replacing staff on leave, there can be an inclination, as the Alberta survey suggested, to simply avoid hiring young women or, worse, to fire them before their maternity leave kicks in. No boss would dare admit it but, says lawyer Lublin, “that’s just the reality of it. I’m tied up in litigation all day with companies saying they let someone go because they were restructuring or there were performance concerns, while the employee says it was because she was pregnant.”

Pohlmann admits she still hears this a lot. “It’s discrimination, and that obviously wasn’t the intended purpose of [parental-leave legislation]. But the very small employer thinks about that stuff. If they had the option to offer a severance package instead of having to hold the job and find a temp, I think a lot of them would take it.”

While many bosses quietly grumble about the burden of accommodating new parents, strategic companies are focusing instead on finding ways to minimize the disruption and using family-oriented perks to clinch staff loyalty. Research shows, for example, that businesses that don’t offer top-ups are more likely to see their employees poached by others that do.

“It’s no longer a buyer’s market,” says Linda Duxbury, an expert in labour-force dynamics and a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. “Good organizations are forecasting their human capital and looking at the demographic data—who’s graduating from university, how many people are retiring and the number of people available to take their place.” The data show that the mat-leave issue is bound to escalate, as the future labour force will be increasingly made up of women. “If you look at who’s getting educated, it’s women,” she says. “They make up more than 50% of post-secondary graduates…so we better make it possible for people to have their cake and eat it too.”

And it’s not just your female staff who’ll be asking for time off. Nora Spinks, a work-life balance consultant and now CEO of the Vanier Institute of Family, recalls that most of her clients in the 1980s and ’90s were in white-collar professions or government service. These days, however, she’s consulting within the mining, forestry, and oil and gas industries, where men dominate and paternity-leave requests would have once been scorned. “Today, gen X and gen Y dads want to be involved,” says Spinks, adding, “Boomer grandmas, who would have historically provided the postpartum care for mom and new baby, are still in the paid labour force. So dad has to do it.”

Since men still hold the majority of senior positions, their absence will likely prove even more disruptive to the workplace. Though they generally take shorter leaves than moms—between seven and 17 weeks on average—that can actually aggravate staffing complications. “You can’t just bring [a temp] in for that short a time,” says an HR manager at a large entertainment and gaming corporation out west who asked to keep her name and location anonymous. Though she considers herself a “strong people-minded manager” at a firm nationally recognized for its generous family benefits, she was torn when a few years ago a senior manager requested a three-month paternity leave at a crucial time in a significant project.

“I wanted to do the right thing,” she says. “And I felt strong pressure to grant the full leave. But at the same time I thought, ‘No, there needs to be a give and take.’” Though legally she couldn’t refuse the request outright, she sat down with the employee, and they agreed to split the leave into chunks over a longer period so the project could still move forward. In the end, she says, it still came at a cost to the organization, but frank discussion helped avoid what could have been a disastrous outcome.

When counselling companies about maternity-leave obligations, consultant Spinks’s advice always boils down to communication, preparation and flexibility. “We always tell companies to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” she says. Staying in touch with the new parent during the leave will help the employer gauge the mom’s or dad’s changing intentions and plan accordingly. She also recommends clarifying how accessible the employee wants to be while on leave. “Do they still want to keep up with e-mail? Are they expected to read the company newsletter? Are they available to participate in training of the new person or deal with a cranky customer who happens to love them?” This can benefit both parties by better positioning the employer to stay on top of any employee’s concerns and future intentions, while the staffer feels in the loop, more invested in the job and company—and thus more likely to return.

Ample communication and prep are also vital in managing fill-ins. “Start doing some training and development crossover before people actually go on leave,” Spinks says. If redistributing work among remaining employees, have a written plan setting out clear responsibilities, and compensate and support staffers who take on an added workload.

The bosses who best understand the complexities of parental-leave accommodation are those who have gone on such leaves themselves. As a senior manager at a global technology manufacturing company, “mat leaves used to make me crazy,” says Leslie Stroll (her name has been changed). “You’re forever filling and training positions, which derails projects, and it takes months to recover.” But after adopting a baby, Stroll softened on mat leaves and rethought her own demanding role with the company. She and her boss came up with a “transition position” for her that didn’t require travel or working “scary hours.” “It was a nice landing pad,” she says. “It’s a win-win, because they’re helping me tremendously, and they will get my loyalty.” She believes the employer should think of a valued employee like a sometimes-demanding spouse who’s nevertheless worth the effort. “It’s got to be a give-and-take relationship,” she says. “If you take care of each other, it will be like a long marriage.”

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