In this case scenario, we have stellar employee, a woman hand-picked from a sea of new college graduates 10 years ago by the man who became her boss and mentor.
She and her boss had maintained a strong relationship from her very first day, when she was a 22-year-old neophyte. He encouraged her in private and praised her in public, ultimately labeling her an up-and-comer. On her performance review three years ago, he pretty much said she could write her own ticket.
But everything change once she returned from maternity leave. The boss stopped giving her good assignments as soon as she got back. And she couldn't get his ear when she needed it. It's true that she couldn't stay at the office in headquarters until 9 p.m. as she did in her 20s, but she felt she still produced the same amount of work and put in plenty of extra hours—from home—on evenings and weekends.
According to Tarona Lee, founder of TLL Human Resource Consulting in Totowa, New Jersey, this case scenario presents a particularly confounding issue, because the employee already did all the right things before her maternity leave:
1. In keeping with the close nature of her relationship with her boss, she made sure he was the first one she told about her pregnancy.
2. She assured her supervisor of her continued commitment to the job, and made good on her word by devising a plan of action with her colleagues to make sure her work traveled smoothly from her hands to theirs.
3. She went above and beyond the usual preparations for any temporary absence. Even while officially on maternity leave, she managed to juggle the tasks of first-time motherhood with answering phone calls from co-workers with questions about handling her work.
4. Once leave ended, she returned to work with all the well-placed zeal and ambition that had made her a rising star in the first place.
5. When her boss found himself grappling with a work-related emergency, she sprang to his rescue, even scrambling to find a babysitter to free herself completely to act as a problem solver—on a weekend no less.
So why the second-class treatment? Lee offers an interesting theory: Maybe it's not her boss that's changed; it's her. "I've seen problems caused by hormonal changes in a new mother," says Lee. "She may feel insecure and vulnerable and misinterpret normal interactions." If the boss breezes by in a mad dash simply because he's late for an important meeting, she feels brushed off when in reality, his actions had nothing to do with her.
Any real changes in the workplace—formerly close colleagues quitting, new people coming on board to replace them, upgrades to the IT system—that took place during her absence will only serve to magnify her insecurity.
"It may create paranoia where you start to think that because you haven't been there for a while, you're an outsider," says Lee. "It's sort of like that high school mentality where you're one of the in-crowd, and something happens and you feel like one of the nerds."
If the boss appears to have taken a liking to the new hires, the new mom could interpret that as a diminishment of his esteem for her. When all you have is a hammer, pretty soon everything starts to look like a nail.
This is not to say that legitimate problems don't come to light during a leave of absence. "This is the time that the employer may find the employee may not be doing as good of a job as once believed," points out Lee. "Sometimes the supervisor may discover that in the employee's absence, colleagues are unable to find important documents, or they might find out the employee hasn't been following proper procedures."
Nonetheless, Lee says, "I don't think this was the case in this particular scenario, because her boss most likely would have brought this to her attention immediately following her return."
Finally, any genuine apprehension that the supervisor is directing toward her may have nothing to do with the quality of her work. It may stem from his fear that his trustworthy, competent mentee will decide to quit and go back to full-time motherhood.
Whether the change in her boss's attitude is fabricated in her own mind or in fact real, she needs to take positive remedial action, and fast.
A new mother's solution to workplace anxiety starts with introspection and finishes with a frank talk in the boss's office, says workplace expert Liz Ryan
Any woman, or man, for that matter, returning to work from a long, life-changing absence can't help but feel a bit of insecurity. Our case study's worries that she is now diminished in the eyes of her supervisor—the man who gave her the job and then mentored her for 10 years—may or may not be well-founded, but either way, she needs to launch a plan of action.
"This employee needs to get outside of her feelings, outside of her emotional state, and look at whether her performance may have slipped," says Liz Ryan, a careers consultant and speaker. "With all the new tasks she's handling at home, maybe she has changed at the office."
She might start the analysis by comparing how long she took to handle assignments before the maternity leave vs. how long it takes after the leave. "Did I submit my work in a rush, or did I wait a day to double-check details and then hand it in?" she should ask herself. "Was I more alert at staff meetings then? Do I now find myself nodding off during long sessions in the conference room?"
Step 2. A talk with the boss is definitely in order, but the new mother first needs to concentrate on making the right impression. "It shouldn't be, Boo hoo hoo, I feel terrible,'" Ryan says. "She should tell the boss that she's gone through some personal changes and wants to talk about her future."
Questions to ask the boss might include: "How do you see me as a member of your team?" and "How am I doing since my return?"
The boss may very well register surprise—"What are you talking about? You're the same rising star you always were." If that's the case, the new mother can simply return to her old office routines, reassured that her fears are groundless.
On the other hand, according to Ryan, the supervisor might say, "'I can't give you the same kinds of assignments I did before, because I don't feel comfortable sending you on a trip when you have a new baby at home.'"
Step 3. At that point she could assure him that jetting off to Mexico City is no problem—or thank him for being considerate because she really doesn't want to travel for the next year or two. In the latter case, she could compensate by offering to take on extra assignments that don't require trips.
Once the boss understands that her commitment to the job—whether parenthood alters her approach to office responsibilities or not—is unchanged, both he and his employee will feel relieved and more confident.