Total Rewards (Comp & Benefits)

How HR can support parents on leave without pressuring them to check email

HR leaders should make clear that there’s “zero expectation” for new parents to stay connected while they’re on leave, one expert tells HR Brew.
article cover

Fizkes/Getty Images

· 4 min read

Sorting through a barrage of unread emails and Slack messages is one of the numerous challenges new parents may confront when returning to work after leave.

Some companies go as far as cutting off systems access to ensure employees disconnect while on parental leave, according to Lori Mihalich-Levin, CEO of Mindful Return, which advises employers on how to support parents in their transition back to work. But such restrictive policies can also cut off employees from vital networks with fellow parents.

Avoiding interference. Company approaches to managing systems access for employees while they’re on parental leave differ greatly, according to Mihalich-Levin. So, too, do employees’ preferences for disconnecting while they’re away.

Mihalich-Levin, who is a lawyer, said partners at law firms often feel responsible for their clients while on leave, and want to make sure no one interrupts their email interactions. Associates, on the other hand, might want to turn their email off.

“There are employees…who say, ‘Thank goodness I don’t have access,’ or ‘I don’t want access,’ or ‘I’m not going to look,’” said Mihalich-Levin. “And then others who want to do a periodic check-in for whatever reason, whether personal or professional.” There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, she said, and some employers will address the issue on a case-by-case basis.

Firms that shut off email for employees while on parental leave may do so in part to ensure compliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which grants employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave, and prohibits employers from interfering with workers who exercise this right.

Still, there are some work networks employees may want to remain plugged into while on parental leave, like employee resource groups (ERGs) for parents.

“I’ve seen and heard about companies that have a policy of turning off email, but leaving something like Slack on, so that the employee can continue to engage with an employee resource group, which they might find really helpful,” said Mihalich-Levin.

The topic recently came up in the Women’s General Counsel Network, according to Jennifer Zador, general counsel for Formstack, a workplace productivity firm. Zador wrote on LinkedIn that many in the network favored pulling access to work or software systems, but maintaining access to community systems, like Slack, “to ensure that employees do not work while on parental leave, but [have] community access and support, as needed.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

Zador told HR Brew it was helpful to receive well wishes from coworkers when she went on maternity leave at a previous job with SolarWinds, where she worked for 10 years. “Nobody needs access to Salesforce,” she said. “But I do think a company should show up for parents.”

In response to a question on HR Brew’s LinkedIn group, HR professionals described a range of approaches to system access for employees who are on leave. While some said they turn off access entirely, Sarah Pernai, director of client service at JB Training Solutions, said they assign a colleague to monitor an employee’s inbox while they are on leave. “The goal is to keep inbox zero with a folder of ‘FYI only’ to peruse through once they return,” she wrote. “We’ve built a culture where employees don’t even feel tempted to check, because they know it’s covered!”

Letting employees lead. However HR departments decide to regulate system access for employees on parental leave, Mihalich-Levin stressed the importance of making it clear there is no expectation that employees stay plugged in while they’re gone.

“I think setting the general tone that there is zero expectation that you connect is important,” she said. From there, she suggested giving employees autonomy to decide if, and when, they want to engage on certain things.

When employees do come back to work, she suggests they set up meetings with managers and direct reports on their teams to go over what they missed, and how they can help the team now that they’re back, rather than spend days sorting through their inboxes. “Let’s ignore all the emails and let’s start afresh,” she said.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.