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Good Question: Why Do Women Quit After Maternity Leave?

Q: There’s a trend at the company where I’ve been an HR hiring manager for nearly a decade: The women who return after a maternity leave last about 14 months before they resign.

This happens across all levels, from junior employees to senior managers, and across departments—meaning in finance and communication and everywhere else, too. This is a huge problem for many reasons, not the least of which is that we are losing strong and promising talent.

We work hard to develop and retain all our employees. We invest in internal training programs and send stars for external development, if they want it. Some of our departments can accommodate flexible schedules, so new parents can change their hours to accommodate new responsibilities at home…We also conduct exit interviews with all employees who leave of their own accord, but so far those meetings have told us nothing actionable.

What can the company—and my department—do to stop this exodus of new moms?

Sofia Theodorou
Senior Vice-President, Human Resources, LoyaltyOne

Voted Best Employer five years in a row, her company also earned Most Admired Culture status.

A: Some studies indicate it takes mothers four months to get back their confidence and readjust to work once they return from a maternity leave. One of the most impactful things you can do to help alleviate anxiety and insecurity is to develop a “stay connected plan” with your employees before they leave for maternity leave.

Before your employee starts her maternity leave…
Discuss and agree on ways to keep connected about changes in the department, business strategies, vacancies, etc. This could be in the
form of a phone call once a month, email exchanges, or a coffee meeting. The care you take in forging a continued connection with
your employees during their maternity leave drives engagement and their motivation to return. It also speeds up the re-entry phase.
A phased re-entry requires planning and forethought, and can take many forms: coming into work for two days only the first week,
then increasing by one day each subsequent week until the employee is back to five days a week. This is where planning is key. A manager
should engage with her employee about a month before the end of the mat leave to discuss and agree on a phased return.

When she comes back…
About four months into their return, re-address job ambitions and career aspirations. Engaging in a dialogue about their growth and
development, and committing to actions that will support their goals, will reinforce to them that they are valued and supported.

If she quits anyway?
If you feel you have these strategies in place, and are still experiencing an exodus of women just after the year mark, you need to apply a laser focus to your exit interview process. Most exit interviews focus on high level questions, such as “Why are you leaving? What could we have done to retain you?” The common answers (“better opportunity,” for example) imply there is little the organization could have done. In the case of a trend that you want to investigate further, consider more pointed questions, such as, “If you were the HR Manager, what strategies would you employ to retain new mothers? What is your advice on how to best implement them?” This should get you closer to the real issues.


Naomi Titleman
Vice-President of Human Resources, American Express Canada

Her company was voted Canada’s Best Diversity Employer and Naomi just returned from a mat leave.

A: Personally, coming back to an organization that provides formal and informal support for new parents has made my transition back after having my second child a lot easier than it could have been. Also, being in a new, challenging, and exciting role where I feel like I am making a difference keeps me engaged.

When it comes to retaining talent, specifically new moms, it’s important for organizations to ensure their employees value proposition is “worth” coming back to. Here are a few ideas:

Foster networking opportunities
One of the many Employee Networks at Amex is the Parents Network: a forum for employees to share stories, tactics and parenting philosophies. This network meets regularly, and brings in guest experts, like nutritionists and psychologists, to discuss parenting topics. It’s a great opportunity for moms, like me, to mingle and to
learn best practices directly from experts, inside of work hours.

Encourage mentorship
New moms are drawn to organizations where they see successful role models a few levels above them, and moms who successfully balance life and career are frequently happy to share their challenges and successes. One conversation often leads to another and a role model becomes a mentor. Leaders should encourage formal and informal mentorship as part of their employees’ development plans and bring it up as part of their progress discussion during regular one-on-ones. Mentorship is not only a key development mechanism but a great way for employees to feel connected to the organization, and therefore, more engaged and likely to stay. Fostering mentorship isn’t enough, however: organizations need to walk the talk, recognizing and showcasing leaders who also happen to be parents who “make it work.”

Cater to individual needs
Employers that offer flexible work environments are in a better position to retain talent. I often challenge leaders’ assumptions that
work needs to get done five days a week sitting in an office. In many jobs, productivity trumps face time, and when employees feel they’re trusted to do their work however they work best, they are more productive and engaged. For a new mom, this might mean working
from home to tend to a sick child without using a formal vacation day. Or the flexibility to pick up a child at day care, knowing they’ll
make up the hours later. Being understanding of their family’s needs allows an employee to give more when on the job.


Tammy Heermann
Vice-President, Global Leadership Development, Knightsbridge

When Fortune 500 companies design programs for female leaders, they call Tammy.

A: Many organizations are diving into their diversity data and coming away with similar concerns about turnover following maternity leave. Here are a few things to think about:

Equip managers to make the difference
I have interviewed hundreds of leaders and poured over female employee survey data trying to understand trends in retention and resignation. The clear theme is how supportive the direct manager is or is not with respect to ongoing career growth (pre-and postleave),
flexibility when children are young, and the perceptions held around being absent. Corporate programs are wasted if managers don’t create the difference one conversation at a time. Help managers understand that growth of talent is key to their role.

Invest in top talent
I would be naïve to say that maternity leave doesn’t provide a window to think through career choices. Today’s career-minded women have spurred the “mompreneur” and the “power maternity leave,” in which women use leaves to start a new business.

Organizations attempting to hold on to top talent need to:
1. Identify talent—know who your critical and key talent is, and what’s important to them and their development given their age and stage.
2. Invest in high potentials—once you know your talent by level and where your key gaps are, provide a robust program with formal and informal development experiences.
3. Provide proactive support—establish a maternity outreach program based on the level of interaction desired by the employee and provide integration coaching when they return to work.

With high-calibre female talent at a premium and organizations tiring of red on their diversity scorecards, some are poaching and paying big bucks to attract top females, especially at the senior levels. Expect turnover and prepare for it; turnover of high performing and high potential women is going to happen. Invest in retaining your top talent and always be focusing on the next generation so that when some women inevitably leave, you have the next generation ready to step into their shoes.

Continue reading and check out Tammy’s article entitled, “Stop Fearing the Mat Leave.” 

Looking for more information about how to add value in the workplace? The Women of Influence Advancement Centre runs highly-targets one-day courses including “Strategic Leadership & Influence.” Click here to see our list of upcoming courses.