How to harness the learning opportunities of parental leave

New parents aren't the only ones who should be planning before a baby comes.
By: | March 3, 2020 • 2 min read
(Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Meike Jordan heads up HR at Productsup, a global company that offers a platform for product-content syndication, feed management, marketplace integration and vendor onboarding. For the past several months, Jordan has been training an HR manager to take over her duties while she’s on maternity leave.

“You can plan for this,” Jordan says, adding that HR has also been training other staff to manage the responsibilities of two more employees who will take maternity leave this year.

When employees take either maternity or paternity leave, their co-workers often assume their job tasks and responsibilities. But, despite several months of notice, some managers don’t fully prepare, leading to confused and frustrated staff. By developing a process that includes establishing a timeframe and prioritizing tasks, parental leave can be transformed into professional-development opportunities that enable managers to test drive employees and expose them to new types of roles within the organization.

Among the first steps is for managers to talk with the employee who will be taking leave, Jordan says. How long will the individual be off work? Although the Family and Medical Leave offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave, the average maternity leave is typically shorter, around 10 weeks.

She says creating a start and end date can be attractive and perhaps less intimidating to employees who want to cross train or test their skills as first-time managers.

Then, analyze the person’s role, says Jordan. What skills or experiences does someone need to perform the person’s job? Who else possesses similar skills? Can the work be divvied up among multiple employees? What about tapping employees in other departments or functions? Can bonuses be handed out at the completion of big projects to express the company’s appreciation and make employees feel valued?

Related: More companies roll out gender-neutral paid-parental-leave programs

“Prioritization is also important,” Jordan adds. “[Identify] tasks that are important or need to be covered during the leave period.”

But never assume people who shy away from such opportunities lack interest. They may be dealing with time-consuming issues, such as caring for an elderly parent, that prevent them from tackling additional projects.

Following a guide or plan also helps managers better achieve their most important responsibility: developing employees.

“I’m also handing off tasks to other HR team members, which gives them the opportunity to grow within their roles,” Jordan says. “When I come back and see how all my team members have developed in their roles, I will feel proud.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.