Your Company Is Never Your Friend: My Maternity Leave Story

I’ve wanted to share this story, but debated about whether to do so. Ultimately I decided there’s no point to blogging anonymously if I can’t share these tales to help others who might find themselves in a similar situation. So, gather ’round, friends, for the heartwarming tale of my totally jacked up maternity leave:

Long-time readers of the blog may remember that around six months ago, my company was bought out by another one. I was seven months pregnant at the time, so the first thing I did was run to HR. I wrote in that post that I was told nothing significant would change, because I was… by the HR director.

I explicitly asked whether there would be changes in how I had to use PTO, as I knew it was common for companies to require a PTO burn for leaves. The director assured me that would not happen. And I continued to be told that for the next few months, across multiple conversations, meetings, and information sessions. I was to be grandfathered into every policy as long as our baby was born before December 31, so I didn’t need to worry.

I went on maternity leave thinking, “Sweet, my company is the bomb, and they are doing this all so ethically! This is as good as it gets!”

And So It Begins…

One week before the end of the paid portion of my leave, I got a message from a coworker who also just had a baby. “Have you talked to anyone in HR about your leave yet?” she asked. (Did your stomach drop there?) “They are telling me I have to burn PTO for the unpaid part of my leave.”

Bless my naïve heart, I genuinely thought there was a mix-up. After all, my company was doing this totally. ethically. With the workers’ interests 100% in mind. So, I called HR. And the sweet temp they had filling in for the Benefits Coordinator who had recently quit (yes, you read that right) said, “Nope, that’s true.” She referred me to the HR director when I immediately proceeded to sob.

For those who are not in the know, the maternity leave situation in the U.S. is out-of-control awful. FMLA, our national shame, gives pregnant mothers a guaranteed 12 weeks to recover without losing their job. It does not mandate pay, and employers can make you stack PTO on top of your leave until you run out. Previously, my employer offered a policy of eight weeks paid, with the possibility of six unpaid which (it kills me to say) is actually a pretty luxe policy compared to a lot of places. On January 1, HR rolled out a policy that required a PTO burn before unpaid leave.

That is a big deal, because if you don’t have enough PTO to cover the second six weeks of unpaid leave (which no one did–our old company had fairly conservative PTO policies, so it was near-impossible to accrue that much), you return to literally no PTO for the rest of the year. With a newborn. I also have a wedding I need to attend this September. Burning all my PTO was not a possibility. For most people, it is not a possibility. The policy is basically a sneaky way of forcing you to shorten your leave.

I left a message for the HR director, asking them to please call me to discuss the policy change. Several hours later, I called again. Then, when I still did not receive a call back, I wrote an e-mail. It was a professional e-mail. Unimpeachable in its word choice. But it was not a nice e-mail. The word “unethical” was used. The e-mail earned me another call from the temp, informing me that I could expect a phone call by the next afternoon.

The call came, but it was not the director. Over the course of this conversation I proceeded to be:

  1. Gaslighted (Gaslit?) about what HR told me, with phrases like, “I can’t imagine anyone actually said that.”
  2. Misinformed about elements of policy from an HR rep even as I was taking them to task over misrepresenting said policies (for instance, telling me FMLA worked in a way even I knew it didn’t).
  3. Blamed for not receiving information at events I attended, asked questions at and, later learned from HR themselves, did not even cover the items in question.
  4. Told “I don’t really see why this is a big deal, you get more PTO now” no matter how many times I reiterated that the PTO did not cover the rest of leave, so I had to return to work far earlier than previously expected.

And finally, the explanation that they felt made it all go away:

5. Told “The leave policy is still the same, we changed the PTO policy, which is totally separate.” They said this over and over, because from a legal standpoint, it covers their butt. I explained that while in HR world that may make sense, to the person on the ground trying to implement the policies into their life, that distinction is hogwash. The policies obviously directly impact one another. I was told we would have to “agree to disagree.”

I called the Department of Labor and asked if I could do anything. They said it was technically legal, but that I should go to my union. We’re not unionized.

I called my daycare, and there was absolutely no way to move Squidge’s start date. They slotted someone before her already because of my former return-to-work date. My mother-in-law came to live with us for nearly a month until daycare started. Thank goodness that was a possibility, as it literally may have been the difference between me having to quit my job or not. I also had not yet pumped any milk for my freezer stash, so I had to get busy fast. Thankfully, unlike many women, I had no problems. I burned 2 weeks of PTO and returned to work after 10 weeks of leave, a month sooner than I expected.

What I Did About It

When I got back to work, I compared notes with two other ladies who were returning from leave. Turns out, we all heard the same message about leave before our birth. We also had the same experience of gaslighting and bullying when we pointed out the discrepancy later. And the final kicker? A pregnant coworker put time on my calendar to discuss what my benefits experience had been like, because she still couldn’t get straight answers from HR two months later.

I couldn’t let it stand, y’all. I absolutely hate “drama.” The idea of doing anything terrified me a little, because I didn’t want to be pegged as one of those people–a complainer, drama queen, etc. But here’s the thing: I really care about doing the right thing. I care if I do the right thing, and I need to believe the place where I work is at least trying to do the right thing. On those grounds, I had to speak up. I could feel resentment eating away at me. I knew I would permanently lose all respect for my workplace if I didn’t give them every possible chance to set it right–if not for me, then for others in the future.

So, I enacted our company’s open door policy. The policy basically says you are always free to escalate up the food chain if the person you are speaking to is doing something wrong. Who was the person above the HR director?

The president.

I went to the company president. It was supposed to be with a group of the other ladies who felt wronged about their maternity leave, but when I tried to schedule the appointment, the president’s secretary said they would rather speak to just one of us. And since I made first contact (and probably since she knew me), she suggested it be me.

I can’t exactly explain what I felt. I was nervous, of course. But also, I felt a deep sense of peace that what I was doing was the right thing. My motives were not self-seeking. I had already returned to work, after all. I just wanted to be sure other people weren’t treated like we were, and that HR truly received the message that what they were doing was not okay.

So, I prepared a timetable of every moment I interacted with HR about maternity leave, pieced together from my Outlook calendar, e-mails, and phone logs. It ended up being two pages long. I also came prepared with what my specific complaints were (the lack of clarity about the information and the way we were treated for not knowing it), what I wanted to see (better, more transparent communication from HR), and specific examples for how they could achieve that.

I treated the meeting more like a sales pitch than a complaint. I kept it light and chatty, kept it away from things the president cannot control (like the fact FMLA itself is a joke) and kept to the point of, “I just want to see things better for people who come later.” The president took a lot of notes, and seemed somewhat shocked and sympathetic. They also asked questions that made it clear they were getting it–questions about time tables and how information was conveyed. They said they would get back to me. Overall, it was an incredibly positive meeting.

The Outcome

A few days later, an Outlook invitation appeared in my inbox. It was from the HR director. I accepted the invite, and we talked. It was a tense, awkward conversation. They were clearly also nervous. They explained some of what happened. Apparently, corporate had not even given them the PTO policy until just a few days before the start of January, when they sent it out via company e-mail. When they didn’t hear back from anyone, they took that to mean the message was received and it was fine.

What actually happened was that no one understood the implications of the e-mail or, in the case of those on leave, the e-mail had not even been read. I told them that explained a lot, but also told them it did not explain that we had been told the opposite before, the way we were treated when we expressed confusion, and the lack of communication with others now.

I got the sense they hoped to persuade me from any sort of critical thoughts about the situation. I was not willing to go that far, but did feel that I gained a greater understanding of what happened behind the scenes on their side. I also learned that the president had forced them to do an after-action review, examining what they did wrong and how to do better. The president listened and did something about it.

Ultimately, I don’t know how much of it got through to HR. I suspect a little, but not as much as I would have hoped. Here is what I do know, though: I stood up for myself and others. I raised the flag on the issue pretty much as high as it can be raised. And, having done so, I no longer feel much resentment. HR messed up and may continue to mess up, but I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose. They’re really struggling with the transition to corporate. I also feel that, if something awful happens again, there are people in leadership willing to listen and who want to fix it.

The Takeaway

The lesson I am taking away from my maternity leave debacle is that my company is not my friend. To this day, I believe I work for a pretty good company that actually cares about doing the right thing. Even HR, who I think were put in a situation way over their head. Despite that, this still happened, and there wasn’t much the company could or would do to fix it. A company is never going to look out for my interests, except inasmuch as doing so benefits them. That means that the only person or thing that is absolutely looking out for my best interests is always going to be me, and me alone.

That doesn’t mean I am walking around with a chip on my shoulder. But it does mean that moving forward, I will be even more diligent about ensuring that I get any promises in writing before I bank on them. It also means I will continue to keep detailed records, since they were the only thing I had going for me in this situation. Finally, it means that I will continue to speak up for myself and others when the situation warrants it. I am responsible for being my biggest advocate.

Have you ever had a disagreement with HR? How did you handle it?

8 Replies to “Your Company Is Never Your Friend: My Maternity Leave Story”

  1. Emily Guy Birken

    This is horrifying. Not that there was such a big snafu with how the new PTO policy was enacted (which is bad enough), but that your HR department would decide to gaslight and bully professionals on maternity leave rather than own up to their own shortcomings.

    • Ms. Steward

      That’s the thing–the policy change sucked but that happens. I guess I felt like it needed to be made A. Super clear to the people it would effect (not a mass e-mail they wouldn’t see because we were not checking e-mail as told) and then with more of a spirit of “We are so, so sorry, our hands are tied and we have to do this!” rather than, “So this is all your fault somehow.”

  2. NZ Muse

    I’m in awe of you lady. Good on you and if I was one of your coworkers I’d be so grateful for you stepping up.

    I… have fortunately never had a disagreement with HR. I imagine it can’t be easy. I can think of examples where colleagues have involved HR in stuff (issues with a bulldozing manager, don’t think it helped at all; issues with very to-the-letter interpretations of maternity leave criteria).

    I’ll be going on parental leave later this year – this is the first company I’ve ever worked that offers any paid parental leave and I’m really thankful for that. (Yes, you can have a year off in NZ but only a few months are paid, and at way less than minimum wage. Having my employer pay my full salary even for a short while I’m on mat leave will make such a huge difference.) But you’re right, a company is never your friend and nobody will care as much about your best interests or go to bat, as you.

    • Ms. Steward

      Hooray for getting some leave paid! It’s great you all have the option of a year, but that is indeed a really long time to.go without a paycheck. I can’t decide which is better: a longer time of guaranteed unpaid leave or 12 weeks of mandatory paid leave. I think the latter would benefit more Americans…

  3. Laura

    Good for you! My main story is of working mega over-time towards getting a release out that was delayed, then I ended up starting leave 2 days before release.

    Apparently, since I wasn’t there the actual day of release, that disqualified me from getting the bonus everyone else got. FML

  4. Abby

    Oh boy. This gave me a lot of feelings. On behalf of all people capable of reproduction, thank you for doing something. Also, excellent use of Jennifer Lawrence images.

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