Better Life Lab

“I’m Pregnant.” Why Your Boss’s Reaction May Matter More Than You Think.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

When Jen approached her boss about her pregnancy, she expected something like a tepid congratulations. Instead, her female boss turned to their male colleague and said: “See, this is why you can’t hire women, or at least not ones of childbearing age.”

“I was anticipating an ‘OK, then. Congratulations,’ ” said Jen, who, like nearly all of the women we spoke to for this story didn’t want to use her last name in case of repercussions to her professional relationships. “I wasn’t expecting a joke. I wasn’t expecting a joke at my expense or at the expense of other women.” Jen actually liked her boss and her job, but this dig has stuck with her over the years.

New research in Organization Science by Laura Little, Amanda Hinojosa, and John Lynch shows that when managers responded positively to a pregnancy announcement, the employee was found to be more engaged and committed to their job and supervisor more than a year later.

After working with hundreds of new parents and their managers, and interviewing hundreds more, I know that the significance of the announcement story in shaping the transition to parenthood at work. I hear these stories most often from women, not expecting fathers, perhaps because women’s careers are more likely to be at risk after becoming pregnant, and concerns about stigma are top of mind.

A positive interaction does truly pay off. When Sarah Kaufman, assistant director for technology programming at the NYU’s Rudin Center, shared her news, her boss was almost gleeful with his congratulations. “When you said you had to tell me something I thought you got a new job offer,” he explained, “but this is fantastic news.” Kaufman continues to work with her boss four years after the birth of her son. His reaction is consistent with his management style: He’s given her the space to grow in her career while making time for her family, and Kaufman’s career has benefited.

Then there are the bosses who make it clear that they view their employees’ major life events as huge inconveniences. One salon owner responded to a pregnancy announcement by telling the pregnant stylist and her colleagues that he wished he didn’t have to hire employees with working uteruses.

When Emily announced her pregnancy to her supervisor at a nonprofit, he didn’t look up from his computer. “So are you going to be coming back or staying home and having a bunch of kids?” Suzi, a marketing executive, had just received a glowing performance review a week prior to her announcement. Her boss responded by pointing to her stomach and telling her that with all she had going on in there she may no longer be right for the job. She could barely contain her shock. Each of these stories ended with the employee’s eventual departure.

Both the employee and the manager bring a lot of baggage to this interaction. Research shows that managers’ own work-life conflict may result in negative work behaviors. When one employee announced she was expecting, Ilana, a Rabbi, admits that she was secretly less than thrilled. “I feel terrible about that reaction,” she confessed. “To her, of course, I was happy and excited—but you can’t help but have a feeling of ‘What am I going to do?’ when someone who works for you announces a pregnancy.”

Given the work and life factors at play for both employees and managers, the timing and circumstances of the announcement may have a lot to do with the likelihood that all goes well. When Rebecca, a public school teacher, announced her first pregnancy, she was one of the first of her co-workers to have children. At the time of her first announcement, her principal was excited and supportive. In June, when Rebecca announced she was pregnant again and would be out for the fall, one of the busiest and most stressful times of the school year, her principal “basically cried.” In short, it’s easy for managers to miss the chance to respond positively when work and life are overwhelming. It’s also common for employees to draw the wrong conclusions about their manager because of one thoughtless reaction on a bad day.

Managers should recognize that these interactions, however brief, matter a great deal. Be prepared. Your employee doesn’t necessarily need a hug, but he or she wants to feel emotionally safe and informed. A warm congratulations is sufficient. Focus on framing this new phase the right way, as an opportunity for collaboration, a chance to open the lines of communication and to plan for the changes ahead together.

Employees can also help create conditions for a successful conversations: Don’t just drop the news and wait for a reaction. Be proactive about setting the tone for good communication. Leave the meeting prepared to start planning for the road ahead—delegating work, clarifying expectations, while keeping your manager informed and engaged in the process.

Both parties need to cultivate empathy in these moments. When Abby, an investment banker, announced her first pregnancy, her boss put her head in her hands, despairingly. She then told Abby how hard it would be to cover for her, and detailed the barriers to advancement as a mom in investment banking. When she became pregnant with her second child, Abby tried a different tactic. She went into the same boss’s office and said: “I’m going to tell you something. Then you are going to say: ‘Congratulations! Let’s work together to create a plan that will work for both of us.’ ” Her boss looked across her desk, paused, and smiled. “Congratulations.”

A new baby is just one of the many moments when work and life collide for manager and employee. It’s a rare moment, when both bring personal values, experiences, and expectations into the workplace. How managers choose to react in that moment leaves a lasting impression—make it a good one.