What to Do When 20 Percent of Your Staff Is Pregnant
As an entrepreneur, you often abide by the mantra: "Be the change you want to see in the world." But what if that backfires?
Consider the example of Sandra Fathi. When the Affect president had her first baby, she wasn't the president of anything--just an employee--and the experience left much to be desired. "I was told I could not be promoted because I had been out of work for three months, and it wouldn't look right, even though I had done the work and was eligible," she says. "I left within six months, because I knew they didn't respect me or value my contributions."
So, she vowed when she founded her own marketing and public relations firm that her employees would have a different experience. Fathi got her views on maternity leave and family accommodations tested when four out of Affect's 20 employees got pregnant in the same year. So, what does a company do when such a large percentage of employees is having life-changing events at the same time?
Evaluate everything. This process began when the company's first employee, vice president Katie Creaser, announced her pregnancy. Though not subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act (for the most part, you have to have 50 employees before you cross that threshold), Fathi decided that it was worth it to the company to act as if they were.
Employees are allowed to take up to 12 weeks off for the birth or adoption of a child, and they are given pay based on how long they've been with Affect, up to six weeks. The company also evaluated its short- term disability plan to make sure employees who had babies (or other short-term illnesses or injuries) would be receiving disability payments while they were off work.
Embrace parenthood as a company. But time off isn't the only thing that new moms (or dads) need. They also need a family-friendly environment, and Affect is determined to provide it. "Because of the way the culture is set up, my employer recognized that my son was a priority from the time I got pregnant until now and that it's important to me, and my job is important to me, too, and I feel very passionate," says Creaser. "You don't have to hide your morning sickness or your need to work from home, and it caused me to feel at ease, which made me better at accommodating things."
It was also helpful that the first new mom in this baby boom was a vice president--because it allowed the other women to see someone in a leadership role being treated well, and they knew they could expect the same treatment. Which they got.
Plan ahead, and ask employees to do likewise. Good intentions aside, just how do you handle your workload when so many people need lots of time off at once? Affect does this through planning ahead. Fathi explains: "Every employee has a six-month plan, a three-month plan, and a 45-day plan, so there are no surprises. It's not that they are out and suddenly all this work is handed to one person. We're structured in teams. Every account has a minimum of three people, which helps because of historical knowledge and background at any given time."
This planning ahead, communicating with clients, and making sure more than just one person knows what's going on with any account at any given time means that things can continue to run smoothly. Even when snags come up--like canceled day care.
Be OK with surprises. One employee, shortly before she was scheduled to return from maternity leave, found out that her babysitter situation fell through. Rather than panic, they came together and made a plan where she could work from home some days, and Grandma could take the baby on the others until more permanent arrangements could be made.
Why do this sort of thing? Fathi says, "85 percent of our industry is women, so there is no avoiding this issue in the workplace. We definitely want people to know that they don't have to sacrifice that part of their lives to work for us." Affect wants the best people, and to get the best people, you need to treat them like, well, people.
The fourth person to announce a pregnancy apologized to Fathi for not scheduling properly. "You shouldn't need to schedule reproduction!" she says. Everybody looks forward to the next baby.
Don't forget your nonpregnant staff members. But what about the remaining 16 staff members who aren't having babies this year? Do they feel picked on because they have to cover for their colleagues? Absolutely not, says Fathi, because the company recognizes that everyone has a life outside of work.
When an employee has a hobby she wants to pursue, the company will try to accommodate, says Fathi. For instance, when an office manager dreamed of being an opera singer and wanted to go on auditions and summer stock, Affect gave him the time off he needed. "We've had other team members who have dealt with sickness or an aging parent," Fathi says. "So we've really cultivated a culture that we're working towards the same goal... No one is resentful that accommodations are made for one person because we all support each other when needed."
Not that all this accommodation has been easy. It's hasn't. But when you want your employees to treat your clients the right way, you have to treat your employees the right way. And Fathi is determined to do just that.
SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist
Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.