Best practice for managing maternity leave for line managers

In a nutshell?  “Ask don't assume, encourage Keep In Touch days and demonstrate your commitment to helping your colleague have a smooth return."

When your colleague has returned

9 Be interested and empathetic

Ask about life at home and show interest in the family. First thing in the morning and before going home are good times to turn the conversation to life beyond work. Share your own experiences, if applicable, to legitimise your returner’s feelings and experiences. Watch out for exhaustion and encourage her to leave early in the first few weeks – acknowledge the mental demands of effectively being a new starter on top of coping with broken nights’ sleep. These things are equally relevant to new fathers in your team.

Kate Gillies
"My line manager arranged for flowers to be delivered to the office for me on my first day back. This was such a nice gesture and made me feel very welcome back. It also indicated a recognition that the transition can be difficult and that the team wanted me to feel positive about the return. My line manager has made clear that there is support for me from him, from the team and from others in the firm in terms of career progression, and that having a family does not jeopardise this.”

Kate Gillies, solicitor, Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP

“Making employees feel valued and motivated is an important part of the line manager’s job. It is our duty and responsibility to look after employees in this way. I am familiar with how all-consuming it can be for a mum looking after a new baby, particularly when it’s the first, and how demoralising it can be for a mum returning to work where the employer is unprepared to make any adjustments or allowances for the new circumstances. I was also familiar with how hard the first few days can be being back at work and away from the baby for the first time, hence the flowers. Also, from a selfish point of view, motivated and valued employees work better, to everyone’s benefit. The fact that someone is a new mum does not of itself change that person from being a high-performing and valued employee, with any sensible adjustments that need to be made to accommodate nursery drop-off times, part-time working and similar. However, that new mum with a new priority may need to be reminded of the good things about being at work. For these reasons, an extra effort should be made to reintegrate them and make sure they know they are valued.”

Iain Drummond, partner and Kate Gillies' line manager, Shepherd Wedderburn LLP

Janet Hood
"Remember how you/your wife/husband felt on their return to work. Involve new parent in work of the firm. Ensure you have cover during period of absence (I came back to an office full of bankers boxes containing all the work which hadn't been done in my four-and-a-half-month absence). Don't treat return to work as a punishment. Be reasonable.”

Janet Hood, solicitor, Janet Hood Consulting

"I was given extra breaks, a fridge and a private space to allow me to express milk, which was great as I felt really guilty about returning to work and the effect it may have on my ability to breastfeed. I was given extra breaks to allow me to rest and keep my calories up. My boss was very supportive, as were all the staff in the office. I don’t think my firm could have made it any easier.”

Nicole Conroy, trainee solicitor, Caird Vaughan

"Line managers should try to understand that the return from maternity leave is a difficult time for a mother in most cases. Often, the baby is still feeding through the night leaving the mother tired as well as having conflicting feelings about returning to work. I was very keen to get back to work after having both my children, however, the first few weeks back were hard as I was juggling drop-off and pick-up times, arranging childcare with my husband and my mother, and trying to establish a new family routine. If line managers can be sensitive to the many things a mother is dealing with on her return to work, it would certainly help. In my honest opinion, the best person to have as a line manager is a working mother or a very family-oriented working father as they will have the most understanding of the new mother's life outside of work.”

Lynsay Kelly, solicitor, J & A Boyd

"Having line managers with young children of their own who don't have au pairs and understand the stresses that looking after children and working can bring made all the difference for me. I don't feel the need to be present in the office all the time. I can work from home if I need to and nobody frowns at me.”

Sheana Campbell, solicitor, BBM Solicitors

10 Build a plan for success and seek to use her strengths

It's useful to co-create a written plan of what your returning team member is going to do over the first 90 days. Alternatively, a shorter plan of a month may suit you both better. Reminding her of her strengths and taking into account any preferences she's signalled about her career direction should be part of this conversation. The key point is that your expectations should be made explicit. Giving your team member this certainty and an opportunity to negotiate - if she thinks it's under or over-stretching - is important.

11 Hold a team meeting and have weekly or fortnightly one-to-ones

Bring the whole team together to appraise your returning colleague of current priorities and cases. Research (see Chokkar & Wallin, 1984) shows that performance drops off if line manager/team member one-to-ones happen less frequently than once every fortnight - and that there's not much gained from having them more frequently than that. That might be much more frequently than either of you is used to and now's a good time to 're-contract' and put them in both your diaries for the first three months. Keep talking honestly, making adjustments accordingly and giving praise.

Kate Gillies
"Holding a team meeting as soon as possible on return from mat leave. It was really useful to get an oversight across the team of what everyone was doing and how I could get involved. The meeting had been arranged specifically for my return, which made me feel that the team were making an effort to reintegrate me.”

Kate Gillies, solicitor, Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP

Sue Arrowsmith Rodger
"Give the returning staff member support. Meeting regularly with him or her will ensure that you know where their strengths and weaknesses are, so that you can assist with the weaknesses and celebrate the strengths. Regular communication can strengthen the team and avoid over or under-burdening the staff member. This also really builds staff loyalty and helps to develop an engaged staff member and future partner.”

Sue Arrowsmith Rodger, partner, Pagan Osborne

12 Have a broader career progression conversation

Keep an open mind and avoid making assumptions about what your team member may or may not want career-wise. If in doubt, ask. As a line manager, you have a role to play in growing your team and 'growth' will mean different things to different people. In the early days of her return, a woman is likely to be focused on getting back into performing well in her current role rather than thinking about the next career step. However, this can change quickly and when your team member talks about feeling comfortable in her role, she may appreciate  you talking about next challenges or stretch assignments.

Some pointers for career conversations:

  • Comment on what you see her doing well (behaviours as well as output and impact)
  • Encourage her to share her own ideas about how she can progress
  • Ask what support she would like from you
  • Suggest ways you could help, eg introductions, meetings and activities that could raise her profile
  • Talk about internal and external mentoring options
  • Highlight relevant resources to fuel her success (books, podcasts, blogs, journal articles, courses, coaching)

Line Manager Checklist (Download)

WhatWhenCheck
Discuss the type (both the 'what and the 'how' - eg texts, phone, email) and level of contact she would like whilst on maternity leaveBefore M/L 
Highlight Keep In Touch (KIT) days and discuss positive uses forBefore M/L 
Raise the subject of flexible working - what are her thoughts at this stage?Before M/L 
Raise the subject of flexible working - what are her thoughts at this stage?Before M/L 
Send invitations to team events and other opportunities that may be of interestOngoing 
Send updates about projects/other information as requested by your team memberOngoing 
Personal card to say you're looking forward to her returnc. Three months pre-return 
Call/email to discuss dates for KIT days and share any positive feedbackc. Three months pre-return 
Talk about flexible working (as appropriate)KIT Day 
Discuss phased return optionsKIT Day 
Create plan/rough idea of what the first day back will involve with your team memberKIT Day 
Create a 90-day plan with your team memberKIT day/first day back 
Arrange technology and co-located desk space for both your returner and her coverTwo weeks before her return 
Block the morning of your team member's return out of your diary to give an update to your team memberASAP 
Create a positive start to your team member's first day back - be there to welcome her. Organise welcome lunch?First day back 
Discuss and define what a 'successful' first week and month looks like (based on the 90-day plan)First day back 
Schedule weekly 45-60 minute one-to-ones for the month aheadFirst day back 
Have a career progression conversation when your returning team member indicates she's feeling competent in role and looking for stretchThree to nine months post-return 


Further Resources