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Michelle Gyimah

Equality Pays

Gender Pay Gaps Consultant

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Maternity discrimination: five ways line managers make maternity returners want to leave


Hiring and training new staff is a costly business, so it makes financial sense to try and retain as many existing experienced employees as possible. Sadly, too many organisations are losing talent due to a negative approach to maternity returners.

Did you know that there is a direct correlation between the relationship of a maternity returner with their line manager and the rates at which they leave or stay? 

From my experience of talking to mums and working with clients, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to pregnancy discrimination and managing maternity returners.

Time and time again, I’ve seen the seemingly small and insignificant ways that line managers inadvertently and sometimes deliberately undermine maternity returners.

Their reasoning tends to fall into two categories: fear or ignorance of what good line management consists of, or believing that requests for part-time work/flexible working are not problematic.

Below I’m looking at five behaviors which dramatically increase the likelihood of maternity returners either leaving shortly after returning or not coming back at all.

Seeing mums as a ‘problem’ to be ‘handled’

This is one of the biggest and most common complaints from mums trying to navigate and juggle their childcare responsibilities with holding down a career.

There is a widely held sense that they are no longer valued as individuals, but are now to be managed by force.

An example of this can be aggressive responses to flexible working requests or intense ‘micro-management’ which creates a problem where there wasn’t one before.

One health professional organisation refused a maternity returner the ability to work from home two days per week, even though she had been doing this prior to her maternity leave. The reasons they had given her for this were spurious. To make matters worse they turned down her request two days before she was due to return to work.

There was not enough time to allow for further discussion, an appeal or for her to arrange alternative childcare.

Flexible working requests should always be made formally.

This type of scenario causes raises an employee’s stress levels and creates an antagonistic workplace environment. Managing maternity returners is no different to any other HR or employee function, so it’s important to remain professional and to remain fair.

Not making verbal agreements formal

Quite often this is the first sign of a breakdown in trust and ultimately the working relationship.

Dealing with flexible working requests can be stressful for some managers and as a result they do not handle requests in a professional way.

Flexible working requests should always be made formally.

Too often I’ve spoken to women who verbally agreed a new working pattern with their line manager, never got anything in writing and then were told six to eight weeks later that it could not be accommodated.

In my experience this happens for two reasons:

  • The first is that line manager didn’t have the authority to authorise flexible working request, but only checked this after they’d spoken with the employee and agreed new working hours.
  • The second is that they have felt overwhelmed with the responsibility and hadn’t considered it properly before agreeing to it verbally.

Whatever the reason for back-tracking on the original agreement, it doesn’t make a good start for the new working relationship. Many mums often talk of the ‘betrayal’ and ‘hurt’ they’ve felt in this situation. Not to mention the fact that they then need to resubmit a flexible working request and figure out new childcare arrangements.

This is why it’s always advisable to ask your employee to make their flexible request formally. Even if they want to talk to you first, make them put it in writing and always give them your response in writing as well as face to face or over the phone.

Having unrealistic workload expectations

When talking with mums returning to work after maternity leave I’m astounded at the number who complain that their workload has not been reduced in proportion with their new working hours or pro-rata pay cut.

I know of one mum who was told that she could could reduce her working hours from 40 hours to 22, but her workload would remain the same.

Clearly this is an impossible scenario, as it causes no end of stress for the employee who is desperately trying to fit in all their workload.

As a consequence, their line manager becomes unhappy that they are taking too long or that their standards are slipping.

It can be difficult to see how a full-time job can be done part-time (especially if this is first time it’s being done), but there are ways to try and work this out.

However, part-time should mean part-time. If your employee is taking a pay cut to work fewer hours, then it makes sense that her workload is reduced to reflect this.

Deliberately making part-time work difficult

Just because a company has accepted a flexible working request, this does not mean that everything is ok. Many mums complain about situations where their manager always ‘forgets’ that they work reduced hours and do not reduce their workload or deliberately make things difficult.

If your employee is taking a pay cut to work fewer hours, then it makes sense that her workload is reduced to reflect this.

One mum spoke of agreeing to work four days a week, but her line manager would then regularly say things like, “let’s do that on Monday”, or “X needs to happen on Monday”, or “we’ll crack this on Monday” – seemingly forgetting that she no longer worked on Mondays.

At first she put this down as an oversight, but after nine months of same thing it was clear it wasn’t. She told me: “It was highly grating having, once again, to remind her that I didn’t work Mondays. She would also refuse to do a ‘handover’ call or notes at the end of Monday/early Tuesday to fill me in on what had happened while I was out so that I could fully engage on a Tuesday. Sometimes I didn’t even know where I was supposed to be if there was a meeting first thing on a Tuesday.”  

It’s clear to see that this continuing ‘denial’ of part-time working would after some time become very grating. It is these small acts of aggression that often lead to the breakdown of what was once a good working relationship.

Covert bullying aka ‘subtle kick out of the door’

All of these examples put together could be viewed as examples of subtle bullying tactics. I have worked with clients who presume that maternity returners will always want to work part-time and therefore were ‘just not that committed’ anymore.

If you talk to women who have experienced this this constant litany of ‘problems’ post-maternity leave, they will tell you that they feel under-valued and feel like they are being forced out of the workplace.

Some tactics are subtle like the ones mentioned above, and others are more obvious.

How can line managers improve their maternity returner retention rates?

Firstly, line managers should get advice from an HR professional on their basic responsibilities on things such as keeping up communication, how to manage flexible working requests and offering phased return to work programme.

The second thing is about addressing your mindset about maternity returners. It’s clear that managing maternity returners will require additional administration and a shake-up of the status quo, but that doesn’t mean that it has been be feared or made difficult.

It costs on average £30,000 to replace staff members and train them up to a suitable standard. It makes financial sense to try and find ways to protect your investment in your existing employees rather than to allow their talent and expertise to walk out the door.

So the next time you receive a flexible working request from a maternity returner, think carefully about what your next steps should be as they will set the tone for the outcome.

Interested in this topic? Read Shared parental leave: why businesses need to do more to make it work.

Author Profile Picture
Michelle Gyimah

Gender Pay Gaps Consultant

Read more from Michelle Gyimah

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