Ask Doug & Polly: How should small businesses treat maternity leave? | Business News

BY DOUG AND POLLY WHITE Special correspondents

QUESTION: I have a small business with five employees. One of my employees just informed me that she is pregnant. I want to do the right thing. Can you tell me what I am required to do?

ANSWER: We’ve been asked this question frequently. Since you have fewer than 50 employees, you are not subject to the Family Medical Leave Act. This simplifies your situation considerably.

Even so, laws vary from state-to-state and there are nuisances. Therefore, we recommend consulting a competent employment law attorney or a human resource professional.

In short, you should treat pregnancy like any other temporary disability or medical condition. You must offer pregnant women at least the same level of benefits that are provided to employees who have other medical conditions or temporary disabilities. If you have an established policy, follow it.

Not that you would do this, but a woman cannot be fired because she is pregnant or may become pregnant.

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A woman may not be denied a job or a promotion because of pregnancy as long as she is able to do the job. Further, a woman cannot be denied benefits because she is a single mother-to-be. You must offer the same benefits to pregnant women and new mothers regardless of their marital status.

If you have no established policy, written or based on prior precedent, you have considerable flexibility regarding the benefits you offer.

At one extreme, you are not required to hold a job open for an employee who cannot work.

However, we believe that, in effect, firing a woman because she needs to take time off to have a baby would send a very bad signal to your employees and make it quite difficult for you to recruit and retain good workers in the future.

We strongly recommend adopting a policy that will accommodate a reasonable amount of leave.

Think of leave as an investment instead of a cost. Whatever you decide you are able to offer, remember the benefit of positive messaging.

Employees are likely to remember how they were treated more than what they were given.

You may choose to offer paid time off or time off without pay. You may require that accumulated paid time off be used before unpaid time off.

However, be aware of the fact that you are establishing a precedent both for maternity leave and for other types of temporary medical disability. Make sure that you can live with whatever you decide to do going forward.

If you do decide to establish a leave policy, be aware that a pregnant woman or new mother cannot be forced to take time off as long as she is able to do her job.

While you will quite rightly want to protect your business and your other employees from any undue hardship, we strongly advise adopting a policy that is as accommodating as possible.

Sending a signal that you value the people who work for you will be repaid with loyal employees and that has real value for any company.

Doug and Polly White have a large ownership stake in Gather, a company that designs, builds and operates collaborative workspaces. Polly’s focus is on human resources, people management and human systems. Doug’s areas of expertise are business strategy, operations and finance.

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