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the challenge

Paradigm Public Relations co-founder and president Tracey Bochner in the firm’s Toronto office, November 23, 2012.BRETT GUNDLOCK/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue .

Paradigm Public Relations Inc. has 26 staff – and 24 of them are women.

That kind of female representation isn't so unusual in the PR business. But it's testing the Toronto-based agency, which specializes in consumer marketing consulting for clients ranging from HTC Corp. to the National Basketball Association and Toronto-Dominion Bank.

Many of those female employees are in their twenties, says co-founder and president Tracey Bochner, whose five-year-old company generated revenue of almost $5-million last year.

Increasingly, they're starting families. Paradigm now has three staff on maternity leave – one for the second time – and a fourth is scheduled to depart in February.

Besides encouraging employees to take a full year off, Paradigm gives one month's salary as a parental leave top-up.

Although Ms. Bochner is happy for her colleagues, she worries about how their absence affects the company – and how many of them will return.

In an industry that has high turnover, she takes pride in Paradigm's relatively low 10-per-cent rate. But she estimates that, from now on, the same percentage of her employees will be on mat leave at any given time.

In Ms. Bochner's experience, PR doesn't have a strong track record of retaining staff after they have children.

"How do we get them to come back to us and want to spend their career with us?" she asks. "What else do we need to do in addition to what we're already doing that I think is resulting in our low turnover rate?"

Ms. Bochner is also concerned about how best to balance off client needs, too. Paradigm has yet to try flex time and job-sharing, and she's unsure if such arrangements would make sense for the business.

"Our obligation is to be available to our clients during their working hours," Ms. Bochner says. "We need to be sensitive to that" to keep delivering "great client service."

The Challenge: With more female staff going on maternity leave, how can Paradigm entice them back, retain them over the long haul, and maintain service to clients, too?


Robert Centa, partner, Parliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP , Toronto

The first thing you have to do is to make a firm commitment to your women colleagues as being key long-term assets for your business. You have to buy into that idea or nothing else will really work.

You need to have an articulated written commitment to women employees. So at our place, there's a written commitment that we top up maternity leave benefits while they're on leave, and we have a paid parental leave program [and] a written flexible-work-arrangement program.

But that stuff that sits in a binder. It's necessary but it's just not sufficient to retain women. The most important thing day in and day out, regardless of the maternity situation, is to build a firm that women want to be at and where they can see themselves over the long term.

When women lawyers come back from a maternity leave, we sit down with them and the first thing we say is, "There will be no bullshit for a year – no bullshit over your hours, no bullshit over your clients, no bullshit over when you have to leave the office – nothing." We tell them that their job when they come back is to figure out how to be a lawyer with a child.

What you have to express to clients is that they're going to get seamless service…You can talk to clients and say, "We're going to do it by building a team where you're not just going to have access to one person who might get sick or quit or be unavailable. You're going to have two or three people"….By giving more people access to clients, you'll find where there are natural fits.

Penny Partridge, human capital leader, Canada, Price waterhouseCoopers LLP , Toronto

For a while there, we were really pushing on "Take your 12 months off. You will need the 12 months; take it." And over time, we realized that everybody's different and not everybody wants the 12 months off.

And so it's having the discussions with them upfront about how they will want to stay in touch. Do they want to still come in to team meetings?

All of them keep their laptops. Do they want to be able to check in? Do they not want to? It's trying to work on that and having that personal experience with all of them, such that, by the time they get back, they're happy to come back and they felt supported the whole way there. And that's what tends to keep them.

We're very big on anything to do with work-life flexibility, because particularly for the generation of people we're dealing with now, that is the No. 1 key to their retention. And what we've been saying to our partners and our clients upfront is that we have more continuity for you when we retain the same people and when they're happier. And one of the keys to that is flexibility.

But it's making sure you've got the proper transition. You know the person's going to have a baby in nine months. You need to start transitioning somebody onto that client sooner rather than later so it's a smoother out, so they don't feel that, all of a sudden, you just cut off their legs.

You really need a few months of overlap there; we think around six to eight weeks of overlap works well. You end up having two people on your payroll versus one, but it makes it overall that much smoother when you're bringing in someone from the outside.

Robert Meggy, president and CEO, Great Little Box Co. Ltd ., Vancouver

There's no magic bullet. You can't make people come back; you can only make an atmosphere that they want to come back [to].

Probably the big thing is that we make sure [female employees] are engaged before they go. We try to make sure we're a good company to work for. We run open-book management here. Everybody knows how we're doing, so the sense of loyalty to the company is very high…because we have profit-sharing every month that people are very interested in.

We have a number of social events, and [female staff] are always invited to them when they're off, because that way they get to see [their co-workers] again. I used to find when we were very small that people who didn't go to social events didn't last a long time. Because it's the people you work with that make more difference than anything. If you go to work with your friends, you enjoy it a lot more.


Build a supportive culture that goes beyond good policies

Through your actions, show that you value female employees and want them to stick around for the long term.

Have staff job-share with a replacement before they go on maternity leave

Although this arrangement costs more, it means a smoother transition for clients.

Build flexible client teams

By assigning several staff to one client, you can deliver great service and accommodate everyone's work arrangements.

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