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Maternity leave: How much should you tell the boss?

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I'm seven months pregnant now (due Dec. 5), and I plan on quitting and staying at home for at least a year while I finish up grad school part-time. I have two female supervisors that I get along very well with, although they can be quite ruthless about work. I originally planned on telling them this month that I won't be coming back after I have the baby, but many friends disagree with my plan. My husband is a consultant, so I don't have the option of getting on his insurance. We plan on using COBRA then going private (which I know is expensive, but he is technically compensated for private insurance -- we've just been on mine for the past three years).

I really don't want to jeopardize my relationship with my main boss since she'll be so critical in helping me do policy consulting in the future once I have my masters. I'm torn about what to do, and every time I've made my mind up, I end up changing it again. I want to do the ethically right thing and maintain a good relationship with my bosses, but I also don't want to unnecessarily pay an outrageous amount for the delivery.

We've called a few insurance companies and we'll probably do COBRA to cover birth and delivery (unless the baby arrives while I'm still covered by my current insurance), then we'll have to get a private insurance. If I work at my current job until near my delivery date, can delivery still be covered by insurance since I've technically paid for it at that point? Should I just tell them that I plan on coming back and then let them know during my (unpaid) maternity leave that I'm not coming back?

What you can do and what you should do are two very different things. You are under no legal obligation to tell your boss whether or not you are coming back after the baby. In fact, unless there is a wildly different standard in your industry, you're just expected to give two weeks notice before terminating.

Now, what should you do? That's actually hard to say. When I was pregnant with my first child, I was 100 percent sure that I was going to stay home with the baby. No way was I coming back to work. And so, when I told my boss that I was pregnant, I also told her that I was not coming back after the baby was born and wanted to work with her to come up with a plan for transitioning my role onto someone else. I felt that was the only moral thing to do.

Then I had the baby. And she was adorable. (Still is!) But she was a baby and you know what babies do? Sleep, eat, and cry and occasionally make cute little faces. And so when my (former) boss asked me if I was interested in doing a project from home, I jumped on it, and I ended up working for that company for five more years. And my ideal of being a stay at home mom? Well, my ideals changed. Turns out I like working. Who knew?

On the other hand, I had a colleague who was super career driven. She knew she'd be back after giving birth. She was only going to take the 12 weeks afforded under the Family and Medical Leave Act because it was expected, but she was sure she'd be bored to tears because she was not a baby person. After her baby was born she couldn't stand to leave and ended up taking six months off, and only came back to work because her husband got laid off.

My point is, you won't actually know how you feel about this whole baby thing until the baby actually appears. So you're not actually being dishonest or misleading your bosses if you tell them you aren't sure what your plans are. You think you're sure, but having a baby really does change everything.

If your bosses are savvy, they know they can't ask you if you're coming back after having the baby, because that smacks of pregnancy discrimination. (Legally, you have to treat pregnancy the same way you treat any temporary disability, so if you don't ask people who break their legs if they are planning to come back after their legs are healed, you really can't pry into a pregnant woman's plans.)

So what should you do? First of all, there's no way I'd plan to quit prior to the birth of the baby, especially because of the insurance thing. You can assume that it will be easy to transition onto a good, private health plan, but I wouldn't assume it will be that easy. You've been paying towards this health insurance for years, and if you're like most youngish people (I'm assuming that, since you're pregnant and enrolled in a master's program, you're not 65) you probably rarely see a doctor outside of pregnancy. Now is the time to get your benefits from it. Likewise, you're entitled to a short-term disability payment if you've been paying into a short term disability plan.

I advise telling your bosses: "I'm not 100 percent sure what's going to happen after the baby gets here. I'm leaning toward staying home, but you never know how things will go. I'd like to help set up for that possibility, though. Let's work together to talk about transition plans." That way, you're preparing them for not coming back, but you're not resigning.

Now, can they fire you for hinting that you won't come back? Of course! (They can't fire you for not coming back because of the baby, but they can certainly dismiss you for hinting you're not coming back.) But you said that you get along well with your bosses, and that they are rational. If you're eligible for FMLA (the requirements are having worked 12 months and 1,250 hours, the company has more than 50 employees and you're not  in a key, highly paid position), fill out all that paperwork and proceed as if you will come back.

And you are right that you will need their references when you re-enter the work force, so I think it's very wise to be as honest as possible, while still maintaining the option of coming back. And you may find that you want to work part-time, or you may find that you wish to drop out of grad school and just focus on the baby, or your husband may decide that he'd really like to stay home while you work full time. All of these scenarios are possible, so don't close any doors before the little one gets here. And if it's a girl, Suzanne is a beautiful name.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.
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