Executive search, dinosaurs and maternity leave

And corporate dinosaurs should be left where they belong. In another era

You would think that when you reach a certain age there shouldn’t be much left in this life that can surprise you. But yet it does …every day! Whether it’s a person’s salary being the size of the GDP of a small Baltic state for doing a bad job, or last month when a candidate took a call on his mobile phone during an interview, without so much an embarrassed mumbled excuse. He was then surprised because the meeting was unceremoniously closed on the spot! What was he thinking? I’m not sure of the psychology behind this. Is it arrogance or ignorance? Now you can’t impress everyone all of the time, but you can impress most people, some of the time. This I do know.

Return of the dinosaur
Imagine my astonishment when I saw this little gem from Glencore’s ( the mining and trading giant, preparing to launch London’s biggest-ever flotation) newly appointed Chairman Simon Murray on board quotas “….pregnant ladies have nine months off”, women “have a tendency not to be so involved quite often” and are not “so ambitious in business”.

Barely moments into the onboarding process and seemingly unstoppable, he carries on, opening his mouth only to change feet. “All these things have unintended consequences. Pregnant ladies have nine months off. Do you think that means that when I rush out, what I’m absolutely desperate to have is young women who are about to get married in my company, and that I really need them on board because I know they’re going to get pregnant and they’re going to go off for nine months?”

Old boys board search
So although there was a subsequent apology – my first impression was not positive. Seemingly Mr. Murray was already under pressure to resign only 10 days after his appointment. When we consider the government committees, column inches and think tank hours invested in discussing womens’ positions on boards, this appointment has to bring the whole selection process into question, if there even was one. It has the hallmark of a hardcore old boys network, doing its very worst. Otherwise, how can the appointment of a dinosaur such as this, ever be justified and then now he has, what on earth was he thinking making press statements in this way? This is arrogance not ignorance.

Grass roots
I have spent the week with a number of experienced business owners and managers, all with families themselves. We discussed this article and the repercussions of maternity leave on their organisations in some detail. There were mixed feelings. Tim, owner of an orthodontic practise in Surrey, employing predominantly women, husband to a senior doctor and father to 2 daughters said ” Of course, I am fully supportive of women taking maternity leave, but not enough is said about the organisational difficulties current legislation presents especially for small businesses. My managers are not allowed to ask expectant mothers working in the practise, if they intend to come back to work after they have had their babies, or when. We are not allowed to contact employees while they are away, even if we want an update on a case they have been working on.”

Patricia a senior manager in a large health care organisation, a mother with two children, told me that in the past 7 years one of her senior staff members has been absent for over 50% of that time on maternity leave, which has had serious repercussions on her team.

Pierre, now a retired Managing Director of a construction company in Belgium and father of 3 adult children, as well as 7 grandchildren suggested ” If women are committed to their careers they find a way to pursue them at the same time as raising their families, together with their partners. A relationship with an employer is like any relationship: it’s about open communication. 30 years ago, when it was more common for mothers to stay at home, one of my best managers was a working mother. My daughter and daughters-in-law both work in professional jobs. Today, when both partners need to work for economic reasons – all parties have to find a way around this problem.”

Everyone’s issue
So what is the solution here? Women have children. Men have children. We have a declining birthrate with simply not enough people to economically support an aging population. Future generations will have probably have to work until age 70 unless they can earn and save enough to retire earlier.

This is a problem for governments, organisations and individuals alike. We need an effective legal framework which facilitates appropriate maternity leave, but within a structure and culture where women can remain connected to the workplace, without feeling pressurised. Organisations should be able to stay reasonably engaged with their employees, without fear of harassment accusations. The issue of course will be in the definition of “reasonable”.

And corporate dinosaurs should be left where they belong. In another era.

What do you think?

17 responses to “Executive search, dinosaurs and maternity leave

  1. Thanks for raising this Dorothy. For me these senior (usually male) perceptions about women have often been a major barrier to women’s success. It is sad to see them continuing to be an issue. But we haven’t got it right! The feelings generated when the issue is raised come from a very deep place and it is not going to easy to get to a resolution. But that is a reason to bring things out into the open and have a very honest discussion of which this is a part

    • Hi Wendy – yes it can be problematic – but it’s one where issues have to be aired openly to debunk the myths as Annabel says. Covering maternity leave can be difficult but just one of the many challenges of making workplaces work!

  2. I am always amazed by maternity ‘myths’ by which I mean what UK employers believe about how our own maternity system works! We have provision for up to 10 keeping in touch days when women can attend work, or work at home, go on training, come into be updated during their maternity leave, without ending their leave.

    A good way of working will ensure that women are kept in the loop and can be contacted within reason. There is no need for all this paranoia.

    What employers can’t do is contact their absent women constantly and nag them to decide whether to return. The assumption in law is that they are returning unless and until they say otherwise. Most of my clients organise locum cover and say – if the woman does not return you will have done your probationary period and be in line for the role – if she does then you must go.

    I run a small business myself and have had women on job share and part time post maternity leave long before the law suggested it. It is a question of thinking about how to make it work!

    Everything to do with people can be a problem in business – but most women have two children or less – this is not a permanent condition! Men (and women) can have long periods off work quite unexpectedly with heart conditions, other illnesses. We don’t argue we won’t hire people because they might get sick. Why argue we can’t hire women because they might get pregnant?

    • Hi Annabel – thanks for sharing the UK legal situation. My understanding was that the “keeping in touch days ” were paid working days, but for general adhoc enquries the new mother could refuse if an agreement had been not been set up beforehand. ( http://www.businesslink.gov.uk/bdotg/action/detail?itemId=1080903184&type=RESOURCES) which is the situation my source Tim found himself in. I think as Pierre says it’s about a strong working relationships anyway.

      I agree for senior business men such as Simon Murray ( and also Alan Sugar aired the same view publically a couple of years ago.) to make press statements such as this is profoundly inappropriate, misleading and detrimental.

      Coping with maternity leave is an issue that organisations and individuals face – both the new mother and person providing temporary cover. There are women who exploit the situations as well. But I also agree that it is something that out of long term economic necessity as a society we have to overcome.

    • Yannick Vanaverbeke

      I’m rather fond of this idea – keeping in-touch-days, even though I’m finished myself with 2. As far as I can remember I didn’t really like being on leave that much at all, so it could have actually helped me (as well as the company), at least for those days and I’m sure it shortens the – time- barrier (a year is long, in Belgium, maternity leave is shorter) or any reluctance against returning (as one often hears talking about) afterwards…

  3. True keeping in touch days are not compulsory – though I have never known anyone refuse unless their child was sick or there were real problems with the pregnancy. It sound as though the relationship between employer and employee broke down!

    Often pending maternity leave puts a real strain on working relationships where there is no proper handover process, no documented procedures etc and it can be the final straw that broke the camel back – but it is not usually the ‘camel’ itself.

    It sounds as though there is a lot more to the story than meets the eye! My guess is she felt they resented her pending leave (and they probably did) and that is never a good place to begin when asking people favours – which is what you are doing if you contact them on leave to ask for things!! I start with a bunch of flowers and a congratulations card myself xx

    • Hi Annabel – no there was actually no break down in the relationship. This is a very supportive employer. The mother simply didn’t want to be contacted during her maternity leave and if I have understood correctly, it is her legal right to state that. This makes it difficult for employers, but in terms of the woman on maternity leave quite short sighted in my view. I think it’s important to stay engaged.

      However, it boils down to the degree of contact. One person’s reasonable is another person’s intrusive. That’s where I think the legal structure isn’t clear – but can it ever be in such circumumstances as indefinable and subjective as these?

  4. Hey Dorothy,
    I think we may mean different things by the same words. If the woman doesnt want to be contacted at all, not one word, that is her right, but it does betoken in my view a break down in relationship however it was caused. Most people can stand the odd call or chat and there is something odd about this. To my way of thinking a woman who does this views her employer as something to be excluded – eg not wanted, and in someway to be kept away from family life and this does indicate a feeling that the relationship is not healthy!! The employer may feel things are fine – but plainly they are not!

    Anyway there is no way we can legislate about ‘enough’ and ‘appropriate’ in any meaningful way, but women who do go all ‘baby’ and don’t have any contact with their employer during a whole year’s maternity leave may find they have trouble integrating themselves when they return!

  5. Hi Dorothy – Simon Murray’s comments were outrageous and he should go. However having worked in HR for over 15 years in 3 different companies and dealing with maternity leave issues I can see Tim’s point of view. There are women for whom their work is their career and for others ( even highly qualified professional women) it’s a job. I have experienced on many occasions women seeing contact from their employer as being intrusive during maternity leave. This isn’t about relationships breaking down – it’s just some women view the workplace differently and are allowed by law to exercise that right.

    • Thanks Marcie – I think that was the point Tim was making. I would also suggest that if women are serious about their professional lives they can’t switch off totally professionally during maternity leave if it runs to a year. In Belgium as Yannicke says maternity leave is less than that – so the issues are perhaps less challenging.

  6. Bill Simpson

    Dorothy – I have 2 daughters by the way and a professional wife, but as a manager who has had to deal with maternity leave cover over many years it can be a challenging process. Because of onboarding and training issues usually the work is covered internally in larger organisations. If the employee isn’t fully committed to the organisation during this time then it can cause problems for the other team members -who also have families!

  7. Interesting comments about contact during maternity leave.

    I am wondering how women who have a whole year off (the UK entitlement) and don’t want to maintain contact, figure they can get back to working with the team they left? Wouldn’t the team and or the boss feel a bit awkward about trying to restart a normal day to day relationship with someone who effectively refused to speak to them for a year?

    Whilst I can see that a new baby can be overwhelming and that the time is precious and to be savoured, I can’t quite see how this gets to all contact from working being intrusive. What is more normal in my experience is women proudly bringing their babies in to show off and phoning in to chat to colleagues to catch up on the office news. That is why I wonder whether the women who want not one word of contact feel that the relationship has broken down in some way. In my experience this is nor normal behaviour. Obviously if leave is shorter than a year, things may be different..

  8. Hi Dorothy – Like all things connected to people, there are many variables and I have experienced all kinds: executive women who take no time off at all, scheduling C sections to fit in with business commitments, barely enough time to recover health wise and employing 2 nannies . In the short time they are at home they are keeping in touch daily – to the such an extent where there doesn’t seem much point in having a baby in the first place. Many are as Annabel says perfectly normal – want to stay connected both professionally and socially . Finally there are others who milk the system for everything they can get, putting in sick notes, deferring their return trying to keep their options open as long as they can. I have lost a couple of excellent temporary staff who simply couldn’t wait any longer for the new mother to make up her mind. Yes they are definitely in the minority. Before they went on maternity leave I would have considered that the whole team had good relations with these women. One decided eventually not to return and the other did return but only for a short time -when she got a part time job near her parents. Both women were happy for the social contact ( baby shower and gifts) but were very reluctant to stay professionally connected to their colleagues to the point where they alienated them. One of the other commentators mentioned a valid difference in view point: some see the job as a career while others see it as just a place they go to work.

    • Annick – thanks for your sage input. I agree that there are always some who are extreme at both ends of the spectrum. Funnily I heard someone else only yesterday talking about scheduled C sections and 2 nannies. It is always tends to be the extreme behaviours, whatever they are that cause comment while normal professional conduct goes unreported!

  9. Dorothy,
    you opened another interesting and very important discussion.
    I agree with you completely that women serious about their careers and already at the C -level can not afford being on maternity leave for a year and having no contact with the employer. Yet I hear many of them wanting both- high position and endless maternity leave.
    Yes, there is a large problem how to structure work and maternity leave legally.
    With my first baby, I was on bed rest during pregnancy receiving minimum support from the government and at the same time I managed the whole project from my bed. The company did not offer to pay for that, since I was on sick leave! and I did not ask, I thought that I can not leave the team since I knew the client best. But then my company made administrative mistake because of which I was for two months without any income! After that when I was few days before delivery my manager asked me to work again which I refused and decided not to come back to that company after maternity.
    I’m more like the mentioned type, to schedule the C section with the business :-). I don’t think it’s necessary for ambitious women to come back immediately to work but it should be able to arrange some type of part time work from home. If I’ll go for the third child I would prefer working few hours a day for the first six monhts and between 6 months and 1st birthday working few days a week in the office and remaining from home.

    • Hi Ivana – yes to me it’s all about flexible working and a new attitude to the work place – although obviously there are professions which don’t lend themselves to remote working such as orthodontistry. Like with many situations it’s quite often the minority of poor experiences which get reported on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s