Should you max out your maternity leave?

By Sarah Lorge Butler for CBS MoneyWatch.com

Is it ethical to take paid maternity leave even if you don't think you're returning to the workplace? That was the discussion I had last week with an old friend in New York City who had called to tell me he and his wife are expecting their first child.

They'll be awesome parents, and everyone is thrilled. Within about 24 seconds, our conversation came around to their post-baby work plans. The wife's company offers a generous leave, 18 weeks paid, which is almost unheard of in the U.S. But she has mixed feelings about going back. She might want to stay home with the little tyke, and she was feeling guilty about the prospect of collecting pay for four months if she isn't sure she's going to return to the workplace.

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"Whoa!" I said. "No guilt! It's an insurance company that pays the mother's salary during her leave." Maternity leave is usually covered by short-term disability. Companies, and sometimes the employees themselves, pay premiums so that they are covered, whether they're giving birth or have a broken leg or need chemotherapy. Besides, maternity leave is a benefit, like paid vacation. It shouldn't be contingent upon a mom's future plans. Right?

As soon as I hung up, I started having doubts. Turns out, I was quite a bit off the mark, in both the financing and the ethics. That's according to Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research center. Here's what she told me:

Leave for having children is paid from short-term disability, usually for only six or eight weeks, and it's a percentage of your salary, not your whole salary. So in the case of my friend's wife, the company is putting in its own money to make up the difference during those first two months, and they're paying the other two months themselves.

OK, that was my first mistake. Turns out, I had also completely overlooked other implications.

"She may be helping herself, but she may be hurting other women," Galinsky says. "Companies know full well that people can fall in love with the baby and change their mind about coming back. My problem, ethically, is if she knows in advance she's not coming back. And sometimes when companies have bad experiences with paid leave, they'll write it off and say, 'Well, one out of every X women will do this.' But sometimes when they have a bad experience - they're providing paid leave because they value employees and they want them to return - they can say, 'Forget it. We're not offering this anymore.'"

In other words, when women take the paid leave and then quit, the company might decide to shrink or eliminate the benefit altogether. I hadn't thought about that one. So how should she handle it?

"My view is she should certainly take her disability and any accrued vacation she has, but she should come clean with the company that she really wants to take an unpaid leave of absence," Galinsky says. "And see how the company responds. Maybe the company says, 'That's fine, we so value you as an employee that we'll pay your leave anyway.'"

Galinsky reminds moms-to-be that they'll never know how they'll feel or what might happen, so they want to leave the door open. Maybe a husband loses his job while she's out on leave. Maybe she starts climbing the walls and itching to get back to her work. "That's why I would call it an unpaid leave," Galinsky says. "She doesn't want to burn her bridges, and that's why she needs to behave well."

There is a flip side, of course. One HR specialist I spoke to said she's seen women rationalize it this way: "When the company knows they're going downsize, they don't tell me in advance that I'm the one losing my job. So why should I tell them in advance?"

So much depends on the culture of your workplace. Some malevolent managers have been known to assume an employee isn't coming back and load the pregnant mom down with extra work in advance. On the other end of the spectrum is another buddy of mine, who was upfront from early on in her pregnancy about her plan to quit and stay home. Her bosses appreciated her hard work to that point and her honesty, which allowed them to ensure a smooth transition. They paid her bonus early.

But Galinsky's parting words gave me pause: "I'm a boss, and we give paid leave, and it would totally freak me out if someone did that (took the leave and didn't return)," she says. "It is a lot for a nonprofit to pay. I wouldn't throw away the whole benefit for one bad apple, but I would be a little bit soured."

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