Parental leave can often occur at a critical career juncture for many women, with career growth and parenthood frequently clashing.
Thankfully, a relatively small (but growing) number of companies have begun to recognise this and introduce support programs to help meet the potential challenge. Our research at Roar People has shown that the parental leave journey is a particularly individual one — and catering to the individual needs of each employee is paramount to ‘onramping’ employees in a sustainable way that will ensure their career longevity and success.
‘Onramping’ is a relatively new term that is gaining credence in organisations. It was first highlighted in research conducted in 2005 in the US, looking into career “breaks” that many individuals take over their working life. “Off ramping” and “on ramping” refer to the avenues women and men can take in transitioning out of and back into work. Importantly, the research found that Onrampers were hungry for help, with 94% of them reporting they felt a variety of company-sponsored initiatives would make for more successful onramping experiences.
What organisations can do
These important career transitions are linked to the broader picture of women in leadership. In this context we are really interested in more than whether the employee returned. What we really want to know (and ensure) is that they are still enjoying their career (and family) two, three and five years down the track.
Addressing this transition systematically requires a revision of organisational processes and procedures. Ensuring that the employee is onramped back into work in a role which is still challenging, which meets her (or his) career needs (even if that need is to take the pedal off career development in the short term) and which allows the individual to balance family demands, is an organisational and managerial competency that is critical.
Taking a longer term view of each employee’s career is also vital over this time. It is not unusual for women to have children in close succession. Yet organisationally, the ability to manage these successive transitions can be seen as difficult. Research confirms that when these transitions have been managed well, employees are more likely to stay with their employer for the long term. So any organisational effort that can assist in tracking each employee’s career break (and reintegration), in a way which maximises their skills, will return dividends to the organisation for many years to come.
What individuals can do
From an individual’s perspective, taking parental leave (particularly for the first time) can be mixed with tension and excitement, as they venture into the unknown. Questioning what their return can look like/how they will feel and how they will manage their eventual onramp back into work can pose fundamental questions for some women and can be quite straightforward for others.
The experience we’ve had at Roar People with our Onramp program over the past few years has shown us that in order to onramp successfully, there are some key tips women can adopt.
A “transition mindset” can set women up for success. This includes:
- Avoiding assumptions. Assuming that your manager/ team/organisation are already adept at managing your impending parental leave and career transition is a potential trap. By actively taking the opposite approach – that a career transition is new territory for your manager/ team/ organisation – you will be more likely to have the necessary conversations that will set your transition up for success. This is a ‘change process’ for everyone, so assuming it will take care of itself may only lead to misunderstandings.
- Taking ownership. No one is going to care more about your successful career transition than you. While it would be nice to assume that your organisation is equipped to handle this for you (see point 1) this does not replace the value, confidence and experience you will gain in taking the initiative yourself. Set up the meetings with your manager/team/HR department before your leave commences to begin this process, and showcase to those around you that you are capable and willing to manage this time proactively.
- Being transparent. While experience shows that women vary widely on their expectations for their career over this time, our experience highlights that whatever level of transparency you feel comfortable with is worth sharing with your stakeholders. We have had clients who were unsure about continuing their career post baby. While traditionally this would have been considered something to hide, being upfront with their manager turned out to be a wonderful way to take them on the journey. More often than not employers welcome the sharing of uncertainty – and will be more inclined to work with you to find a suitable solution.
- Set your communication expectations. Every woman feels differently about how much she wants to be informed over the parental leave period. So think it through for yourself and set this expectation upfront. If zero communication is your preference, notify your manager before they feel that you have gone missing in action. If remaining totally informed is your preference, be clear about how you will manage this and how you want to be kept informed.
- Keep the business objectives in mind. At the risk of being controversial, the right to request flexible work might be legislated but this doesn’t mean it is an entitlement. As much as flexible work can be an enabler for women, it is not a given. Approaching your employer with a collaborative attitude and a perspective that includes finding a solution for the longer term is more likely to achieve your aims. Whatever your preference, maintaining a partnership approach which takes into account your needs and the business objectives will ensure a sustainable outcome for all.