Helping managers to effectively manage staff going on and returning from maternity leave, for improved retention of female talent.

There’s no doubt about it. Managing team members going on or coming back from maternity leave has it’s challenges.

The work still has to get done so who’s going to pick up the slack? Some managers find it hard to know what to say and leave it to HR to manage the ‘process’. Some managers are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Or are worried that the mum-to-be will start asking for a three- or four-day week if you ‘go there’. Worse still, she might get emotional!

These are human and totally understandable reactions. The problem though in saying nothing or not having the essential open and honest conversations, is that it leaves a gulf in communications and can lead to misunderstandings.

It’s important to recognise that managing maternity leave is about more than policy and procedure. Inclusive management and leadership calls on managers to go beyond the tactical. This is about Talent Management. This is about retaining and developing your female talent and taking a long-term perspective beyond the perceived ‘inconvenience’.

To make things more complicated, managers are slowly paying increased awareness to unconscious bias in the workplace. An awareness of underlying, unsupported attitudes and stereotypes about people that influence decisions and behaviours is a good thing.

As aware as managers need to be of unconscious bias, beware also of the unintentional positive bias

In our Back to Work Programmes, we regularly hear of examples where managers are clearly well-intentioned and are trying to be supportive. Managers often think that they’re doing a pregnant or recent returner staff member a favour by telling her to ‘take it easy’ in the run-up to or post maternity leave. Or perhaps they take her out of the picture, not considering her for a project because of her imminent departure. Or a promotion comes up while she’s off and you presume she won’t want to go for it (with a young family and all).

On return from maternity leave, managers can be slow to assign new mums a piece of strategic work on the assumption that she won’t have as much time as before the baby. Or you suspect it won’t be long before she’s planning number two. We frequently hear these stories through the hundreds of women who’ve been on our Conscious Transitions Programmes.

This may be well intentioned from where a manager is sitting. But, from the female’s side, this can unfortunately feel like being written-off, overlooked, sidelined or being put under the radar. There’s a perception that any previous good work and reputation isn’t being taken into account any more. No credit in the bank so-to-speak.

When things change and problems arise, this can usually be traced back to the unsaid within the psychological contract (unwritten mutual beliefs, assumptions and expectations between employers and employees). 

So, as a manager who values their female talent, what can you do to manage a maternity leave more effectively?

  1. Schedule a performance review with your staff member one month before the maternity leave kicks in. Make sure it happens and focus on capturing her achievements and contributions to the company.
  2. Discuss the team and organisation over the next twelve months – strategic change, growth plans, potential restructuring. This enables the opportunity for an open discussion around career expectations and aspirations for when she returns to work. Don’t assume she won’t have any.
  3. Ask her how and about what she would like to communicate during the leave. For example, is it via a non work-related email? Does she want to hear about team events, promotion opportunities or new roles on offer? 
  4. Meet with her one month before the leave is over to smooth the transition back to work.
  5. Take the long-term view and support your employee throughout by being a good ally, advocate or sponsor before, during and after her leave.

Far too often, these important conversations don’t happen. I’ve spoken before about how expectant mothers can go under the radar, starting before they go on maternity leave. Read more about the triple Impact of maternity leave and how mums can go under the radar consciously or unconsciously here.

As a manager, take some time to be clear about where your female talent stands. Enquire about their career aspirations after maternity leave. Don’t assume anything, e.g. that a new mum won’t be interested in a promotion. Some women may well be happier doing the job they have, but others may remain more career forward focused. Either way, having the conversation means that you’ll be informed and the psychological contract (the unsaid and assumptions) will have been addressed. The added benefit is that your female will feel valued, feel seen and feel included. Which will all contribute to a successful and effective return.  

Having coached managers through our Back to Work and Inclusive Leadership Programmes, time and again our participants tell us how hard they find this aspect of leadership. The sessions are an opportunity to address concerns and bring perspective to challenges.

To provide the full picture, we also share the issues that we hear firsthand from mums returning to work. It can be surprising for some managers to learn that the majority of mums are excited about returning to professional life and are fully committed to it. When it comes to their guilt, it’s generally not about leaving the baby but rather about leaving colleagues in the lurch, because they need to be out the door at a certain time. 

It’s about challenging the way you think. Are you perhaps aiding and abetting in someone going under the radar? Are you making the most of your talent? Are you allowing and enabling your talent to show up fully?

We’re seeing more and more managers being super supportive and having these critical conversations. They’re recognising the issues and individual needs of new mums and embracing flexible working conditions, for example. All of this is significant progress in the context of inclusive leadership.

If organisations are serious about aiming for the 30% female leadership target, or shifting the culture of the organization in the context of diversity and inclusion, it’s vital that managers and leaders focus on retaining the best people. Yes, maternity leave is a challenge but with a conscious and inclusive leadership lens, managing the challenge becomes more accessible.

The bottom line: don’t assume anything about your expectant employee’s career ambitions. Be supportive. Have that important conversation and keep communicating! Learn how to be an advocate, a sponsor, a mentor and an ally to ensure that your female talent doesn’t go under the radar.


Clearbird’s suite of Back to Work from Maternity Leave, New Parents and Inclusive Leadership Programmes support diversity and inclusion thinking and strategy.

We help females returning to the workplace to feel empowered, re-focused, confident and re-energised. We support new dads/parents who are also thinking about what this new phase means for them and enable this important conversation to take place. We support, guide and challenge managers in successfully managing these key life transition points – with an eye on retaining and developing female talent.

If organisationally and societally, we’re serious about Feeding the Female Leadership Pipeline and retaining and growing our female talent, supporting parents in this life transition to manage the mid-career phase is critical to every organisation’s diversity and inclusion agenda.

Our sessions are incredibly effective in bridging the communication gap, bringing a wider perspective and providing practical strategies to enable the important and honest conversations.

Contact us to find out more about our Group Programmes and 1:1 Maternity Coaching Services.