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Some working women keep their pregnancies hush-hush for as long as possible for fears their bosses give them less-challenging projects.
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updated 8/7/2008 3:44:42 PM ET 2008-08-07T19:44:42

Laura Stager couldn't wait to share with her co-workers the news that she was pregnant. But once she did, a strange thing started happening: People who barely talked to her before the announcement started rubbing her belly; even more uncomfortable, colleagues ask her weekly how much she weighs.

Stager learned the best way to deal with these new realities is to be honest. For the weight question, she replies with something like, "I don't think you're supposed to ask that." As for the touching, she tolerates it from her closest colleagues, but for others, she simply says, "hands off."

These are the small issues that come with telling the office you're expecting. But there are larger ones, too. Most co-workers will be thrilled, but some bosses won't share the excitement, a possibility that causes some pregnant women to conceal their growing stomachs for as long as possible.

Women who worked hard to climb the corporate ladder worry the boss will put them on the "mommy track," giving them less-challenging projects. This is of particular concern to women who are on a partnership track and need to demonstrate certain skills to advance. Others fear their manager will work them extra hard so they can do as much as possible before taking maternity leave.

But you can't keep your pregnancy a secret forever, and it's best to start planning early how you'll transition to maternity leave. Most experts suggest telling the boss your news after the first trimester, a time when the risk for a miscarriage greatly decreases. The only time to tell the boss sooner would be if you're experiencing a difficult pregnancy or severe morning sickness, and need to take time off from work. No matter what, tell the boss before other colleagues — it's a sign of respect.

Once you inform the boss, meet with human resources to discuss how much maternity leave your state and company offers and what portion of the leave is paid. Each state provides different leave plans. It's also a good time to re-read the company handbook, since it provides information on the firm's policies.

At the meeting with HR, ask how much paid vs. unpaid time you'll receive; what happens if you need to go on bed rest; and what documents you need your obstetrician to complete. Employers usually require the employee's doctor to certify that she's pregnant and list the expected due date.

Many companies develop their maternity leave policy based on the Family Medical Leave Act, which protects an employee's position for up to three months. But employees who are with a company under a year or those employers with a staff of less than 50 don't qualify. If that's the case, find out what your options are.

It's never too early to think about how you'll transition to maternity leave. In fact, you might head off your boss' anxiety by proactively figuring out how the work will get done while you're gone. First, consider who will be able to cover for you. Is there someone who does the same job as you or who is interested in learning the skills that come with your position? That person might be ideal to take on some of your responsibilities.

Next, make a list of key projects that must be done before you leave, and tell your boss what you'll realistically be able to finish. Provide him and the person handling your job with a list of your daily, weekly and quarterly assignments. Call any important clients or contacts to let them know you'll be out of the office on maternity leave, and point them to the interim contact. "That's a nice professional etiquette thing to do," says Ken Pinnock, director of human resources at the Mountain States Employers Council, an employer advocacy group. "It communicates to the employer that the person cares about what happens to the company."

If you do all this and notice your boss is restricting the types of projects you work on or has taken you off the partnership track, address it with him. In the best scenario, the boss is trying to make things easy on you (albeit unfairly). Document all of these changes and then say something to him. In most cases, it's a misunderstanding that will be rectified by your bringing it to his attention.

If it's a more serious situation, such as the boss making offhand comments about your pregnancy affecting your work, continue to document those instances. Also keep note of the change in assignments you're getting. First, go to your boss and ask if there's a problem with the quality of your work, says Pinnock. If it doesn't improve, bring all the examples to human resources. Discriminating against someone because they're pregnant is illegal, and most companies will handle the situation immediately.

In the last decade, a new workplace concept has been identified: Family rights discrimination, which means discriminating against an employee who serves as a caregiver to a family member. The number of cases filed against employers has increased 400 percent in the last decade, says Pinnock.

It's an expensive issue that employers want to resolve outside the courts. Going above your boss' head to human resources is a difficult decision, but a necessary one if your career path is being negatively impacted.

It's tough to know how you'll feel about working once the baby is born, so consider all options. Before going on leave, find out if your company offers alternatives to working in the office full time. Examples include job-sharing, which allows two employees to share the responsibilities of one position, enabling both of them to work part-time. There's also telecommuting or returning to work on a staggered schedule, which allows the new mother to gradually increase her amount of time in the office. For instance, she might return to work three days weekly for about two months, and then increase to four days for two months, working back up to full time.

As for Stager's problem of employees touching her belly, lots of women have the same problem. Thenestbaby.com conducted an online poll and found that 80 percent of the women who took the survey had their stomachs touched; 65 percent said they hated it. "It's like you become pregnant and your body becomes public property," says Kate Ward, online director of thenestbaby.com.

So here's a note to all employees: Keep your hands off the baby bump.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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