How employers can prevent a new parent penalty in the workplace

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Returning to work after parental leave is a rigorous experience for many employees. It can be a difficult time filled with adjustment pain points and career growth setbacks, all stemming from a surprising cause: the new parent penalty.

This penalty — or bias against new parents — presents itself by way of managers and colleagues assuming these individuals are no longer interested in or dedicated to upward growth in the company in the same way they were prior to taking time off. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common hurdle. This bias often has a negative impact on the morale and career potential of employees who experience it.

Yet there are several actionable steps that HR leaders and employers in general should keep in mind to help new parents get back into the swing of things at work.

Evaluate your current leave options. The first step to ensuring a smooth re-entry to the workplace is implementing a leave policy that allows employees enough time to adjust to their new roles as parents. Only 14% of Americans have access to any paid family leave for the birth of a child, according to Pew Research Center. Even more, 23% of mothers are back on the job within 10 days of giving birth whether they're physically ready or not, according to the Department of Labor. This often results in mothers leaving the workforce, even if though they want to stay. Paid family leave is critical — it improves health outcomes for recovering mothers and new babies and improves retention of new parents.

Set the entire team up to succeed. One thing I often hear from clients at Maven who struggle with returning to work is that there is pressure from managers to resume a business as usual mindset, ignoring the significant shift in their lives. Managers should be trained to help mitigate this by providing better re-entry support. Employers can no longer expect parents to work at all hours or travel at the drop of the hat without some flexibility. Providing a transition or ramp time can be extremely successful in helping parents juggle their often competing work priorities and the needs of their children. Transition time also helps set expectations for other team members who may feel frustrated and overworked when parents come back to work unable to operate in the same capacity that they once did — enter parental bias.

Support career advancement with individualized plans. A client who recently returned to work after maternity leave was surprised to learn during a progress meeting that her manager had placed her on a so-called mommy track. She had requested a flexible work schedule upon her return from leave. Her manager assumed that meant she was no longer interested in opportunities for growth at the company.

This mother is not alone, many new parents face similar roadblocks in career advancement as a result of employers scaling back on assigning them responsibilities that would keep them on the leadership track. Instead of assuming what the new parents are looking for, employers should offer individualized paths for success. This ensures that new parents can continue to grow their careers even if they choose more flexible schedules.

Create a support system. Implementing employee resource groups can be an invaluable tool for new parents looking to connect and receive advice from their colleagues, who have been in their positions. Connecting employees with peers who can speak first hand about the pain points of new working parenthood, and how to make the transition easier can go a long way. Having easy access to a network like this lets employees feel like their concerns are heard and their needs are being met. These employees are in turn more likely to confidently stay in their careers rather than dropping out.

Employers are understanding that there are significant benefits to supporting their employees’ transition back to the workforce, including an increase in retention, culture improvements, and positive impact on their bottom lines. In short: paid family leave is a good thing, and when combined with individualized support from managers and team members, a parent’s return to work is smoother. By understanding the needs of their employees, employers are better equipped and more prepared to anticipate and prevent parental bias that hinders employee and company growth.

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