Deciding not to return to work post-baby

Rachel Perkins had two very different experiences with her babies.
Rachel Perkins had two very different experiences with her babies. 

You're expecting. You're over the moon. You can't wait to tell everyone. Except the boss.

Telling the boss you're pregnant can be a scary conversation to have. Even in the most enlightened workplace it's easy to feel like you're letting the employer down and creating headaches for your colleagues.

But what if you're not planning on coming back after the baby? How do you drop that bombshell? Or maybe you're not sure if you'll return or not - is it best to be honest with your boss from the outset, or to keep it to yourself?

For mum of two Rachel Perkins, who works in recruitment, the decision to tell or not to tell boiled down to the relationship with her boss.

“I had a brilliant boss for my first pregnancy. Throughout my maternity leave he kept me updated and maintained contact - as a result, I came back part time as planned without contemplating anything else,” she said.

Round two, however, was a different experience.

“I had a younger boss who didn't get the return-to-work-mum thing at all. I suspected I wouldn't want to come back but gave them no definitive answer," she said.

"Six months into my maternity leave, having had very little contact from my boss and the reality of two small children, I wrote a formal letter to his country manager notifying them I wouldn't be returning,” said Perkins.

After looking without success for career planning and support services for working mums, Perkins founded JustMums Recruitment, which connects mums returning to work with part-time, flexible and family-friendly jobs.

According to Perkins, many of her clients haven't notified their boss that they have little intention of returning to their job.

“Eighty-five per cent of mums I work with want to return to part-time work conditions but pre-empt their employer is going to refuse them. They feel uncomfortable cutting the ties or discussing their options face-to-face, so they string their employer they've found employment elsewhere,” she said.

“It all comes down to the relationship you have with your boss or HR. If there is loyalty established and open lines of communication, then it's better for everyone."

Several years ago, Peoplebank, Australia's largest IT and specialist recruiter, lost a number of their valued staff members when female managers failed to return after having a baby.

Marketing manager Michelle Cooper said it forced the company to take a long hard look at their practices.

“Most of the mums didn't think the company was open to flexible arrangements but didn't communicate this until their sudden resignation,” Cooper said.

Peoplebank put in place a program to support women into and beyond maternity leave, including a phone mentor who supports women as they work out the practical routines (right down to breastfeeding), and the emotional balance between work and baby.

“It's my first day back from maternity leave and already HR have arranged for me to attend a 'career after kids' coaching session. I feel really supported,” Cooper said.

Suzi Dafnis, community director of the Australian Businesswomen's Network, agrees that while pregnancy etiquette can be fraught, it's both an ethical and career-wise move to be upfront with your employer.

“A big company might be able to absorb and job-share your role a lot easier than a small business. You absolutely need to take care of your family, but you need to be honest about what you plan to do. Your professional reputation is at stake.”

“If you go on maternity leave with no intention of going back you need to ask yourself why you're working for the organisation if you can't tell them the truth,” she says.

How to tell the boss: Suzi's top five tips

  • Be honest - let your employer know if you're not coming back. If you're not sure, set an agreement about when you will make a decision.
  • Tell your boss in person - arrange a time to go and see your boss. While it may be easier to do it on the phone it shows a respect for the relationship. Never do it by email.
  • Keep an open mind - if you're not sure whether you want to return explore your options with your boss. It could be that there are none, but you won't know unless you ask.
  • Don't burn your bridges - work together on transition plans and you'll leave on good terms. You never know when your paths will cross again so keep up the relationship.
  • Know your rights and obligations - check your contractual obligations to be sure you don't have to repay any benefits you've been extended.