What You Need to Know When Covering for Someone on Maternity/Paternity Leave

Discussions of parental leave almost always focus on the employee who's taking the leave and the employer. The elephant in the room is, of course, everyone else—the colleagues who will either volunteer or be "voluntold" to fill in for the new mom or dad. Generally, we're all glad to lend a helping hand. We want to be perceived as team players, and who doesn't love babies? But you still need to have a clear understanding of the expectations when you're covering for a coworker on maternity or paternity leave.

Employ the following strategies to ensure you're not the one who's enduring sleepless nights because of a new baby.

Seek clarity regarding expectations

Unlike other forms of leave covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act, an employer generally has ample notice to make plans for an employee's maternity/paternity leave. That means you—as the "solution" to a human resource gap—have plenty of time to get the lay of the land. Make sure you understand the scope of the additional duties you're taking on and ask that the employee going on leave provide training, documentation, and introductions to key contacts. Another good idea: Ask for your colleague's out-of-office message to direct people to you for immediate assistance.

Something else you'll want to clarify upfront is your supervisor's expectations regarding communication. Should you keep her in the loop, or do you need to keep detailed notes for your colleague to review upon his or her return?

Be honest and realistic with your boss

If you're taking on an additional workload, you’ll have to adjust on your own. It's simply not realistic for you to do two jobs in the same amount of time—and even though maternity/paternity leave is for a finite period, you also can't pull off multiple 80-hour weeks without seriously damaging your own work-life balance. Keep the lines of communication open with your supervisor, and work with him to prioritize what's critical and what's not. This is a time to focus on the urgent and important, and put less-pressing projects on the back burner.

Document your contributions so you can include them in your next self-evaluation. When the time is right, it's also appropriate for you to ask your supervisor how you will be recognized for your contributions. Only you can judge when that's appropriate, and it depends on many factors, including the nature of your work and the number of extra hours required.

Be willing to ask for help

This isn't the time to be Superman or Superwoman. If you feel overwhelmed, speak up. Ultimately, ensuring all of the work gets done is your supervisor's challenge, not yours, so don't be afraid to ask for help prioritizing or additional support. Another coworker might be able to lend a hand, or perhaps your company needs to seek a temporary employee or contract assistance. It's better to be proactive, and say you need help then end up in a hole work-wise.

Understand the plan for your colleague's return

Your supporting role doesn't necessarily end on your colleague's first day back in the office. He or she might work part-time temporarily, and you'll also need to get your colleague up-to-speed. If you've kept good notes on your colleague's projects throughout the entire leave, you should be able to pass off your documentation with ease and make yourself available for any questions. (And be prepared for your colleague to need some time adjusting to working and being a parent. It's not easy.)

Remember: Supporting employees when they need to take maternity, paternity, or other forms of personal leave is a benefit to you, even if you're not the one taking the leave. You never know when you'll be the one who needs help from your colleagues.

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