Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: In the past couple of months, four of my staff have announced they are pregnant.

That might not sound too bad except that they are all in fairly crucial roles, and I run a small agency of less than 40 employees. I know I'm going to struggle to cover at least two of the positions and I'm also worried about what I'll do if some or all of them decide not to come back to work or want to come back part-time. Frankly, it all makes me feel less inclined to hire or promote women of child-bearing age. How can I make sure the business doesn't suffer while they're off and how flexible do I need to be in accommodating all of their return requests?

A: Don't be so diffident about it. Of course it makes you less inclined to hire or promote women of child-bearing age - and so it should. You're running a small, service-driven company in a fiercely competitive field with clients who rightly demand constant and consistent attention and know they can find it elsewhere at a flick of a mobile. It's tough enough to win under these conditions even with full-time staff who turn up every day, weekends and evenings when necessary, and never peel off for six months or more at a time of their own choosing. Those are by far your most valuable people: so why should you expect them to cover for other people's maternity leaves - and then meekly hand back those plum assignments when the triumphant dam finally elects to return?

By appointing women of child-bearing age to crucially important roles, then granting them first maternity leave and then flexible working hours, you're indulging your intermittent contributors at the expense of the stalwarts: men and women both. Sooner or later your stalwarts will quite understandably rebel and take off for saner parishes: they, too, have families to go to and lives to live. It's no part of their job description to serve as understudies to wayward stars.

All the above has often been thought but has never before been put into words. Understandably so - it's scary stuff. But looked at through the single, unforgiving lens of competitive efficiency, it's difficult to dismiss. You'd be quite entitled to run your company that way and need feel no guilt in doing so. A lot of people do, though seldom openly.

Then there's another, more difficult, way. Every one of your 40 people must know, and enthusiastically accept, that theirs is a company that despises clock-watchers and job-protectors. Given the nature of the work, everyone's happy, whenever humanly possible, to cover, to stand-in, to augment, to deputise. Nobody keeps score. Nobody knows if Marcus has been helped out more often than Maureen, nor would they care if they did know. Personal lives are as important as working lives.

Of course parents need to keep dentists' appointments and be there on Sports Day. It's taken for granted that able people will take time off to have babies; good luck to them. The only people who don't take it for granted are the ones who take the time off; they aren't made to feel guilty but they do feel grateful - and they say so.

If this is the kind of culture you can make flourish in your company, you'll be astonished at how efficient you'll become. It won't be the tidy, uni-dimensional efficiency beloved of the text-books; but things will get done and the work will be good and people will be happy and even clients will notice.

Whichever of the two ways you decide to adopt, don't mix them up. They only work when they're open, acknowledged, accepted and universally practised.

Q: Until 18 months ago, I was a high-profile agency chief. After taking a well-earned year off to spend with my family after 20 years in the business, I've spent the past six months interviewing and plotting start-ups, but the right opportunity hasn't materialised yet. What's a reasonable time limit to spend out of the industry before becoming unemployable?

A: Until the beginning of this century, you could have spent 15 years out of the industry and you wouldn't have missed a thing. Absolutely nothing happened. I remember one colleague who spent four years doing something quite different in South Africa before returning to the agency. He was greeted on his first morning back: "Oh, hello Chris (brief puzzled pause). Good hols?" Absolutely nothing had happened and no- one had noticed he'd gone.

More has happened in the past 18 months than happened between 1955 and 2000. There'll be quite a lot of words you won't even understand. You'd better be quick.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683 Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.

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