Telling people you're expecting a baby is one of the most delightful -- and most anxiety-provoking -- times of your life. Chances are, you immediately let your family and close friends know the good news. But when it comes to informing your boss, you hesitate.
"When I told my boss, I was so nervous, he couldn't tell if I was happy about it," says Anna Kelleher, an assistant manager for a nonprofit foundation in San Francisco. "He looked at me and said, ëIs this a good thing?'"
No matter how nervous you are, your maternity leave is one matter you must address in a timely, professional way. By preparing for such a discussion, you can cut a good deal with your boss -- and cut out a lot of stress.
Do the Legwork
Your first step is to find out what you are entitled to, both legally and from your employer. Get to know the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Under the FMLA, you can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if your company has at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius and if you have worked for your employer for at least one year and for a minimum of 1,250 hours. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits job bias against pregnant women and requires that a pregnant woman is entitled to the same benefits afforded other employees who are temporarily medically disabled.
The next step is to learn what your employer offers. That information is available in your employee handbook or by talking with the person in your company who handles benefits.
"If your employer has a handbook, you can ask your human-resources representative for it without saying why you need it," says Ellen Bravo, codirector of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, in Milwaukee. Typically, the handbook tells you whether you are covered by the FMLA, the length of leave you're allowed, and whether all or part of it is paid. (When your leave is paid, it is sometimes called disability pay and often is a percentage of your regular pay.) The handbook usually spells out the policy on using sick days and vacation days for your leave as well.
If you're friendly with colleagues who've taken a leave, discreetly ask them what they worked out. Your coworkers may tell you that three months off is the best deal you can get or clue you in to how to negotiate a more generous maternity leave with your boss.
Make a Plan
Once you know your rights and your boss's inclinations, you can decide what plan works best for you. Factor in your budget, the availability of affordable childcare in your area, and your gut feelings about how long a leave you'd like to take.
Whatever you decide, clearly communicate what you want from your boss, both verbally and in a memo. Specifically, your memo should include the terms of your leave: the number of weeks of paid maternity or disability leave; any vacation or personal days; and any additional unpaid leave.
It should also include a list of your duties, what tasks you expect to have completed when you leave, and suggestions as to how your work can be handled while you're out. If your job is multifaceted, you can suggest delegating your work to a number of people.
A Matter of Timing
When should you tell? Professionally speaking, it's better to give your employer as much notice as possible. She'll probably appreciate the early notification and that goodwill may carry over in your negotiations and in your ongoing relationship with the company.
Although the FMLA allows for exceptions ó in the case of early labor or complications, for instance ó under normal circumstances, it requires that you let your employer know your expected last day no later than 30 days in advance. That means you must notify your supervisor by your eighth month (by which time the situation should be screamingly obvious!).
While many women wait until they've completed their first trimester, after which time the risk of miscarriage is reduced, others have a different time frame. One woman informed her boss at two months because she was showing early. Another waited until four and a half months, after she'd received her job evaluation and raise. "I wanted to make sure my salary increase went through," explains editor Carol Killmaster of Chicago.
Mind Your Health
Health factors can also influence your decision to tell your boss early in your pregnancy. "If you need to put your head on your desk every lunch hour for a nap, you may want to tell your supervisor earlier," says Robin Hardman, communications director for the Families and Work Institute in New York City.
That's what happened with BabyTalk senior associate editor Kristin O'Callaghan, who informed her bosses of her pregnancy when she was seven weeks along. "I had to explain why I was late for work and needed to lie down," she says.
And if your work environment or the job's rigors are potentially harmful to you or your fetus, you should tell your employer right away so you can discuss changing some of your responsibilities. Such jobs could include working with chemicals in a laboratory or factory, standing all day while styling hair or working at a checkout counter, or lifting heavy objects.
Whenever you tell, be sure not to blurt out the news to the office blabbermouth before informing your boss. "If your supervisor finds out through the grapevine, it sets up an atmosphere of distrust," warns Linda Anderson, a consultant with Hewitt Associates, which is a benefits consulting firm in Lincolnshire, IL.
When Patty Patino-Serrano, an account representative from Cicero, IL, informed her boss she was pregnant, he didn't seem as ecstatic as her mother had been. But, Patino-Serrano says, when he found out she wasn't quitting, he was so relieved, all he could say was, "Wow! Congratulations!"