Parenthood is a daunting task for anyone, and trying to balance the physical and emotional demands of pregnancy, childbirth and a full-time job can be exhausting. For women (and, more increasingly, men) who opt for maternity or parental leave, the respite offered can be hugely important, and the promise of their jobs waiting for them when they return to work even more so.

While the struggle for workplace equality has come a long way in the past few decades, maternity leave highlights an area where women still deal with unwanted or unequal behavior. Employers should be aware of the potential for conflict, and adjust company policy accordingly.

Women face disbelief from male coworkers
One interesting and surprising area in which women face inequalities and microaggressions is encountered before they even take time off for maternity leave. According to Inc. magazine, it’s not uncommon for pregnant staff members to be met with disbelief or disregard by their male counterparts when they express their intentions to return to work after their maternity leave is over. While different in every situation, this type of behavior can range from annoying and frustrating to outright harassment. One person even wrote into the source to describe the types of things her coworkers told her, such as the fact that life changes drastically with a child. This and other similar pieces of unsolicited advice, perhaps well-meaning, all add up to a lack of respect for pregnant women in the office.

How employers can help
The tricky thing about workplace inequality is in some cases, like the above, employers may have a hard time deciding what constitutes outright harassment. Definitions may encompass the obvious things, such as unwanted verbal or physical advances, but companies may notice that the line can start to blur the further away examples move from overt harassment into more nebulous territory. While not malicious on the part of businesses, this oversight can still lead to a hostile work environment for women.

Rather than deal with harassment claims reactively as they appear, companies should work to make their policies as airtight and broad-spanning as possible. Small-business owners can consider working with PEO companies and other HR outsourcing firms to ensure as many bases as possible are being covered. Not only do these HR professionals have valuable insight into common policies in this area, but they can also help companies remain in compliance with legal and industry mandates covering harassment.