‘I’m a stay-at-home dad. I was guaranteed I could get my job back, but now my employer is backtracking. What do I do?’

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Two years ago, following the birth of my second child, a daughter, I decided to become a full-time stay-at-home dad. I left my job as a software developer on completely amicable terms and with the best wishes of company managers all the way to the top. I was good at my job and well respected at the company. I had assurances that should I change my mind and wish to return, my position was "guaranteed." I’ve loved my years as a stay-at-home dad, and I’ve even started a parenting blog and website dedicated to all things fatherhood.

Here’s the issue: Recently, I broached the subject of returning to my previous career and position with my former employer. I wasn’t offered my same role, but instead one that I consider inferior. Not only am I overqualified for the job, it is also much less well paid. Do I have any recourse? Or do I have to accept that the offer to return was purely discretionary?

— Frustrated father, New Jersey

I sympathize. You did everything right. You worked hard, built a good career, and temporarily left your job to care for your infant daughter. Now it seems your reentry to the workforce is incumbent upon accepting a lesser role for less money. It’s not fair — as women have known for years.

Unfortunately, you do not have legal recourse. Without any "smoking gun"-type evidence of discrimination, there are no protections for parents who voluntarily step away from their jobs. The Family and Medical Leave Act protects your job for 12 weeks, but this does not apply to your situation.

And while your former manager’s promise that you could return to your position at some future date may very well have been sincere at the time, a verbal "guarantee" is unlikely to give rise to a legal claim.

You needed to get the agreement in writing, said Marc Siegel, a labor and employment lawyer in Chicago. "An email could form the basis of a contract or at least the possibility of some sort of quasi-contract," he said. "But the time to get that guarantee codified is then, not years later when you’ve likely been forgotten about because you’re not making money for the company."

And, he said, since most people are employees "at will" — meaning they can be terminated for any reason — what does a "guarantee" even mean? A subject for another day.

You don’t have an option in court, so now you need to either persuade your old employer to give you your old job back (at your old salary) or find a new job worthy of your time and talents.

Unfortunately, I have more bad news. It’s well documented that women who take time away or quit work because of family reasons can suffer career consequences, but research suggests that fathers face an even greater stigma.

The reason is that it goes against societal norms, said Gayle Kaufman, a sociologist at Davidson College and the author of "Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century." "Most employers expect mothers to take leave, but men taking time off for family reasons goes against our ideas of what men — and particularly fathers — are supposed to be: providers," Kaufman said.

Corporate America prizes ideal workers — people fully dedicated to their jobs and available to their bosses 24/7. Workers who’ve taken time off to raise children can’t possibly be seen as ideal in the eyes of employers. They’ve sent a clear signal that their priorities are not laser-focused on work.

How, then, might you catch the attention of hiring managers? Stay-at-home moms are advised to spruce up their résumés by demonstrating how they continue to use their business skills in the time they’ve been out of the workforce. They’re encouraged, for example, to list volunteer committees they manage, newsletters they write, budgets they handle, and so on.

On the face of it, your blog and website would seem to fit the bill as a demonstration of your creativity and entrepreneurialism. But because of gendered expectations for how men ought to prioritize their time, advertising it to employers could come at a cost. "You might score some points for doing the blog and for all of the skills that go into it, but you might also lose a couple of points because the content is related to family and parenting," Kaufman said.

Now for some good news. The job market is picking up steam as the pandemic loosens its grip. And as a software developer, you work in a high-paying, high-growth field. What’s more, once you land a new job — and you will — research indicates you are likely to make more money as a father than your childless male peers. The same cannot be said for mothers compared with childless women. (Again, a topic for another day.)

It’s cold comfort now, I realize. Returning to work after stay-at-home parenthood is hard. The status quo is infuriating, and you alone can’t solve the problem.

My last piece of advice: Remember this experience. Think about how you as a colleague, and possibly one day a manager, can make things a little easier for new parents. Advocate for team members with outside caregiving responsibilities. Campaign for changes to how your organization hires. And identify ways you can support fellow parents on the job.

Good luck.

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Rebecca Knight May 14, 2021 at 07:21PM

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