Knocked Up: The Conversation Most Managers Don’t Want to Have

I have to stand up and applaud Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg today.

No, not for leaning in, but for finally saying what every HR and Operations person in history has always thought, but every lawyer who works for our organizations would never allow us to do: Ask a simple question that has huge aspects to how we run our businesses.

So, what’s the deal? Are you knocked up, or what? What’s the plan?” This is not discriminatory. It’s not biased. It’s a reality of our workforce.

Broaching gender issues in the workplace

Women get pregnant and have to take time away to have the child. Organizations need to plan effectively for this. To do that, the leadership team needs some time to plan.

It seems like a very simple concept to grasp. Yet, most in HR, to this day, advise their leadership teams to never have this conversation with a female employee.

From The Wall Street JournalSheryl Sandberg: It’s OK to talk about babies:

People genuinely want to handle gender issues in the workplace well, but it’s a topic that makes everyone uncomfortable,” says Sandberg. “No one wants to be insensitive, so often they say nothing at all.” One male manager told Sandberg he would rather talk about his sex life in public than take up gender issues with his staff.

Many managers, especially men, may shy away from such discussions because they fear saying anything inappropriate, or worse, illegal. For lots of managers, even mentioning pregnancy and child-rearing is off limits. “The easy and often reflexive recommendation from counsel is often to stay away from any conversation or discussion,” say Joseph Yaffe and Karen Corman, employment lawyers at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

That’s a “very bad interpretation” of gender discrimination laws, Sandberg says. While rules to protect against gender discrimination are necessary, she says they shouldn’t be used to stifle important workplace conversations. “The path of not talking about it is not working,” she says.”

How to have that “business necessity” conversation

So, should you do a 180 and now tell all of your leaders to start asking their female workforce if they’re actively engaged in trying to make babies?

No, slow down cowboy! Here are some talking points to help move your organization towards having “business necessity” conversations about potential work disruptions due to pregnancy:

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  1. Let it be known publicly within your organization how you want to work and communicate with expectant “parents.” Both parents need to know, since many families are now deciding to use FMLA time to help care for their spouse/partner and baby. This just isn’t a Mom issue any more. Communicate that you expect that parents will miss time for the birth or adoption of a child. The intent of communicating open and honestly with leadership is to help plan your absence so there is as little disruption as possible to organization and for the individual employee.
  2. Coach your leaders to never imply or pry about an individuals desires for family. If your culture is open, your employees will come to your leaders when the time is right. Be very clear with your leaders – an employee’s pregnancy is something very personal. Some will want to celebrate, some will want to keep if very quiet, so don’t treat everyone the same. Always be supportive of how you, as a leader and an organization, will continue to support them in their career development – in whatever way they decide they want this to go.
  3. Acknowledge the realities of what is ahead. I love having a sit down with HR, the group leader, and the employee in one big, open discussion, having everyone on the same page in developing the transition plan. This includes scheduling a return which will have some flexibility to it. The worst thing you can do to a new Mom is to have her go from maternity leave to a full work week right away! Start with partial days during the first week. Talk with the leader about allowing for some additional flexibility during those first days. Be empathetic. If you feel someone is taking advantage of your flexible policy, address that individually. Don’t manage the entire organization like everyone will take advantage, because most will not.

Supporting the employee AND the organization

I go into each expectant mother conversation planning and expecting that 100 percent will return to work. Period.

I know the reality is that 100 percent will not return. I never ask, “So, are you coming back?” The reality is most will never know that, really, until that baby is in their arms. Those who know for sure will tell you.

Either way, I don’t need to ask that question because my plan stays the same – how do we support the employee and support the organization with as little disruption to both as possible?

The worst thing we can do as leaders and HR Pros is act like everything is the same and not talk about it. It’s not. There will be change and great organizations plan for change, and make the best of the situation at hand.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.