Am I being penalised for having a baby?
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Am I being penalised for having a baby?

Baby socks, baby onesie, coffee, glasses laptop on wooden table

I returned from maternity leave to find my job had been hollowed out

Dear London Worrier

First, an important disclaimer: none of what I write is legal advice. You should consult a lawyer. I’m guessing you might be reluctant to incur the cost, and I understand that. Still, try to talk to a couple of lawyers and interview them to see which one you might want to hire. If nothing else, you’ll learn something from the discussions.

Here goes with my personal advice. As I say, it’s not legal advice, so please don’t rely on what I say as such.

I empathise with your situation. Bankers often face extended leave for reasons like maternity leave, paternity leave or military deployment. Legally and morally, your career should not suffer. A large bank should accommodate your return efficiently.

I think you must take a nuanced approach as you move forward and reconcile two arguably contradictory strands of thought.

First, you should assume the people in management are acting in good faith. They may make a crass remark, they may goof things up, they may overlook sensitivities, but it’s highly unlikely they are out to get you. They are trying to run their business profitably and it sounds like during your leave, other colleagues covered for you. Undoing several months of office developments is fraught and complicated and requires some deft leadership.

Avoid making personal attacks

Second, notwithstanding the foregoing, you should insist on your rights and stand your ground. It’s important to realise that you haven’t created the issue, and so it is not up to you to find the solution. It is management’s responsibility to bring you back without a demotion or any career impairment, it’s not your duty to find an equivalent position.

This means you need to explain your situation, but without turning it into a personal attack on your managers. You may feel enormous frustration and even anger, especially as decisions are deferred, hard conversations are avoided, and bad ideas are floated. Still, I would stick calmly to your arguments and lay out your expectations.

By the same token, you mustn’t feel you have to run around the bank to see if another department will take you. You can consider another position if it is offered to you. The bank should propose it to you and you should judge it on its merits, not because you feel guilty for causing a mess in the first place.

In other words, you have to walk a tightrope. You must be principled but not passionate. Be constructive but don’t be a doormat.

Easier said than done, I know.

If I were in your situation, I’d operate on a couple of different tracks. There’s the job track and then there’s the HR track. Let’s start with the latter.

You should also follow internal procedure to a tee and document everything faithfully and objectively. You should discuss your concerns with your line manager and then raise it with HR. You should send follow-up emails to memorialise the conversations. I think it’s better to keep written communication brief (as opposed to enumerating all your complaints) so that it can’t be picked apart later and so that any omissions aren’t deemed significant. Words can often be a liability, not an asset.

Document everything

I think it’s helpful to take contemporaneous notes of any relevant discussions and developments. Make sure they are accurate and fairly represent the conversations. Just bear in mind that it could be the subject of some kind of discovery request in the (unlikely) event this matter turns into a legal dispute.

As a precautionary matter, you should print off your firm’s grievance and whistleblowing policies. You should understand what they are in case you have no choice but to file a grievance (because you weren’t given your position back) and a whistleblowing claim (because the firm’s conduct may be illegal). The goal, of course, is to avoid things getting this far, not least because the processes are often stacked against the complainant.

If things do make it this far, you really do need a lawyer; don’t scrimp. Everything you say will need to be reviewed by counsel.

Your objective should be to reach a satisfactory solution. Whatever the merits of your grievance (and I believe your claims), in the real world the odds don’t favour you in a pitched battle against your employer. The bank will have its own interests to look after, and their HR teams are formidably experienced in minimising the bank’s legal and reputational exposure. Your discussions with them should be professional — they will be exquisitely polite in all interactions with you — but bear in mind that they are always on the record.

In the movie Rashomon (1950), widely different accounts are given for the murder of a samurai

Remember as well that facts are complicated in the real world. You may think it is self-evident that you have been marginalised upon your return, and you may be right. But responsibilities are often fluid at investment banks, and what’s a clear demotion to you can be credibly presented as an equivalent job by others. The way different people at any organisation describe the same development is Rashomon-like.

While you’re preserving your rights on the legal side, what do you do on the job side? You need to observe office decorum impeccably. Come in on time, conduct yourself with extreme professionalism, do your job, have a positive attitude, etc.

And I wouldn’t complain to others. I appreciate this is isolating at a time when you need the support of colleagues but conversations can be misunderstood and mischaracterised and they’re definitely not privileged. I also think it can inflame a situation which you want settled in an amicable, positive way.

The key is to preserve your legal rights without burning bridges

As far as looking for other jobs, of course that is an option to consider. If the bank suggests internal options, I’d give them due consideration and be constructive, but I would not concede that you have any obligation to take on a position in a new department. Your default position should be that you were happy in your previous position, you were doing well, and so the presumption should be that you are returning to where you were. So again, it’s important to be nuanced: constructive, open-minded, but not completely pliant either.

In short, the key is to preserve your legal rights without burning bridges. This maximises your options and hopefully the chances of a good outcome. You should consider internal job positions but without conceding your current role. Document everything, follow internal procedures and seek legal advice. Avoid lengthy diatribes, keep most written communication short and to the point, and ensure that any formal messages or detailed complaints are reviewed by counsel.

Yes, you sound like you are in the right, but you want to be more like Odysseus than Achilles: these situations require some nuance and discipline, a mix of constructive engagement and measured assertiveness — just like a lot of investment banking. Good luck.

Welcome to GlobalCapital's new agony aunt column, called New Issues.

Each week, capital markets veteran and now GC columnist, Craig Coben, will bring his decades of experience at the highest levels of the industry to bear on your professional problems.

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