By Hilary Pearl, Founding Partner, Dattner Consulting
We'd all like to believe that when we return from maternity leave, our bosses, colleagues and subordinates will welcome us back, and maybe even demonstrate some patience and supportiveness. Unfortunately, that's not always what goes down. Too often, bosses are insufficiently empathic and organizations do not provide enough flexibility. However, in my own experience, both as a new mother in the corporate world, and as an executive coach who has worked with women who are ascending to senior leadership positions over the last 20 years, I have found that it is peer relationships that are often the toughest to navigate.
By gstockstudio, via ThinkStock
There are ample guidelines out there on how to ask your boss for more flexible hours, but a shortage of advice on how to handle a peer who -- having covered for you during your leave -- won't give you back your turf.
This is precisely the situation Shannon, an advisor at a financial services company, faced when she returned from leave. A male coworker, her peer, had gotten close to her key investors while she was away. But upon her return, instead of relinquishing her accounts, he demanded to be cc'd on everything, withheld information from her, and left Shannon's name off of client offering memos. He began to assume a supervisory role and attitude toward her, which she deeply resented. Shannon considered her options -- confront the coworker? Or go over his head to the boss? She didn't want to be seen as the one sinking into petty politics. When she finally confronted him, he denied any wrongdoing, saying he was just trying to do what was best for the company. Shannon wondered whether she had inadvertently made a bad situation worse, by revealing her weakness and anxiety to a rival who she did not doubt would use this knowledge to further weaken her.
Whether you're dealing with an untrustworthy rival like Shannon's or simply a coworker who has gotten used to doing things her way -- and seems to be having trouble relinquishing your own duties back to you -- it's important to strategically manage your re-entry, beginning with what you do even before you leave.
Start by thinking strategically about your short and long-term career goals, as well as your team's needs. Sometimes a maternity leave presents an opportunity to hand off responsibilities that could help develop more junior colleagues, or a useful excuse to identify tasks to be outsourced or dropped entirely.
Before you leave, meet with your boss to discuss expectations and goals for your return. Your boss can help your peers understand that they will only be covering for you temporarily.
Immediately before your return, set up a call with your manager and relevant peers to learn about any possible changes to your agreed-upon re-entry plan, and meet with them early after your return so you are fully up to date and can approach your "on ramp" back to work with the latest information about what peers are doing and where projects stand. Work with your colleagues and boss on a timeline for taking over your old projects.
Before, during, and after your return, be sure to thank the coworkers who have taken on parts of your job. The reality is that they have had extra work to do, and often their efforts are not rewarded by the organization. Let them know that you acknowledge their assistance and will endeavor to reciprocate someday.
These measures should help mitigate conflict before it starts, but if there is conflict with a coworker, weigh the pros and cons of a direct confrontation. If you decide to confront, plan the conversation carefully and get some help in preparing from a trusted friend or supporter. Be clear with yourself regarding what you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying to put him on notice? Ask her to back off? First seek to understand his or her point of view, and start from a place of inquiry instead of from a place of acting threatened and defensive. Carefully consider bringing the situation to your boss.
In Shannon's case, she realized that the rivalry had become a proxy for all her new-mother ambivalence and emotions about life and work. She also knew that she had made a good faith effort to constructively engage with her competitive peer, but that her efforts had not been successful and therefore, escalation to her boss was necessary. However, before she met with her boss, she was careful to separate out her feelings of anger and betrayal from the outcome she wanted: control of her own clients. She requested that her boss go to her rival to thank him for helping while Shannon was out, but also asked that he firmly remind him that Shannon would now be handling her own accounts again. While Shannon's relationship with her rival is still strained, she is hopeful that her boss will deliver, in word and deed, on the explicit and implicit promises he made before she went on maternity leave.
This post was originally published on HBR.org on August 28, 2014.