If you’re interviewing for a job and pregnant, should you keep your pregnancy a secret? Or do you have an obligation to tell your prospective employer? When I posed this question on LinkedIn, about half the responses defended a woman’s right to hide her pregnancy from a potential employer. The other half insisted that employers have a right to know: withholding information is dishonest, and could potentially cause the employer great harm.
I wasn’t surprised that women admitted to hiding a pregnancy during a job interview; their comments underscored the idea that we can’t trust “The Man.” As consultant Leif Blumenau put it: “Don’t be ridiculous; who would hire someone who soon after goes on extended leave. It seems a woman has to choose between making a career and having babies.” Blumenau’s straight talk echoes what I encountered while pregnant on Wall Street. Instead of seeing it as a moment to gauge my ability to think strategically, negotiate with multiple stakeholders, and to navigate constraints, I felt like I was being asked to choose between my career and motherhood. No wonder so many women on the cusp of motherhood opt to become their own boss or to freelance.
Which makes the level of concern others expressed for the company doing the interviewing rather stunning. A representative example comes from reader Karen Jones: “If you interview when you are pregnant and you don’t advise a prospective employer, you are starting out as a liar, and that is how you should be treated.”
Certainly, the employer-employee dynamic can be complicated. Consider small business owner Anja Dalby who struggled financially when her firm hired an employee they didn’t know was five months pregnant, and the company paid one year of maternity leave in addition to hiring a replacement.
This particular case aside, with about half of my respondents worrying about what was “fair” to the company, it appears that the social contract of Henry Ford’s era is dying slowly and unevenly. We no longer want to check our dreams at the door and work only for a paycheck — we want meaning and fulfillment from our work, and autonomy over how we do it. And yet it’s hard not to pine for the sugar daddy sinecure. We still want companies to take care of us — and despite the decline in pensions, the rise in layoffs, and the flatlining of most people’s paychecks, we want to do right by our companies, too. Which is why the disruptions to our career arc — whether it’s a new baby, sick parents, or the dream of going back to school, travel, or volunteer more — can be so difficult. To jump to a new learning curve, we must leave behind the relative certainty about status, compensation, and benefits.
This then becomes a quandary. If forced to choose, you may decide your personal life takes precedence and go independent. If you don’t love your job but are wedded to its benefits, you may shelve your dreams to stay loyal to the company (or the security it represents). But either way, it feels all-or-nothing.
It may be tempting to see this as fair or even beneficial to the company — you’re all in, or all-out. And yet dilemmas like this help explain why employee engagement is so low. If it’s “you” vs. “the company,” both parties lose. By contrast, employers who who support and encourage their employees’ dreams breed loyalty, resulting in higher profitability. According to Towers Perrin, Intl., organizations with a highly engaged workforce increase operating income by 19.2%, while low engagement led to a 32.7% decline in operating profit.
Communispace, the leader in online insight communities, is an example. One of their engagement policies is a one-month sabbatical available to employees who’ve worked at the company for ten years. Employees can learn whatever they want and go wherever they want. CEO Diane Hessan was a golf novice and spent her sabbatical really learning the game; Julie Wittes Schlack, SVP of Innovation and Product Design, spent time writing a book; and Siobhan Dullea, Chief Client Officer used her time to train for her black belt. It’s no wonder that Communispace reports a 60% engagement rate vs. the national average of 30%, and has a voluntary turnover rate of just 12%, compared to an average of 25 to 30% turnover for agencies with a similar profile.
The reflex we’ve developed over the decades is to see life’s turning points, whether it is pregnancy or something else, as at odds with engagement at work. But canny managers instead use these transitions to cement ties with their employees — not to push them away.
Henry Ford’s contract may be passé, but the imperative to turn a profit is not. With the business landscape more competitive than ever, employers need people who can produce results. Who could be better qualified to do so than the person whose career is a case study in executing amidst the messiness of a life?
Originally published on Harvard Business Review