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72andSunny Singapore’s Chiewling Tan on being hired while pregnant

Businesses, in the most part, are striving for a more diverse and flexible workforce. Despite this, one of the industry’s Achilles Heel seems to be around hiring pregnant women, with many stories surfacing about talent being turned away as it’s deemed as a risk to the business.

In fact, some research has suggested that as low as 5% of businesses would consider hiring a pregnant woman.

On opening its office in Singapore two years ago, 72andSunny did the opposite as Chiewling Tan, director of operations and talent, was brought on as one of the founding members of staff, tasked with building up the team and office.

The Drum spoke to Tan about how this decision has impacted the business, why agencies need to be talent-first and her own experience of working while taking the decision to have a family.

You were brought on at 72andSunny while pregnant, how did that conversation go?

During the final interview session, I told the leadership team that I was 11 weeks pregnant. I wanted to be honest and upfront about my pregnancy, and didn't want to keep it under wraps or wait to share it until after I joined. The reaction from the team was wholly positive, and they sent me the offer letter the day after our chat.

How does that change your feelings towards the business?

I felt that it was a breath of fresh air. It could have gone down a different route altogether. That team decision demonstrated something that is rooted in the core of 72andSunny, which is to put talent first. The company saw beyond the short term (my pregnancy) and looked at who I am as a talent and operations professional who can bring in long term value.

Our industry is inherently a talent-first business and without a good team in place across all levels we can't deliver excellent work, but many agency leaders fail to have that clarity and are focused on the shorter, immediate term.

Why is it important for businesses to support people’s family choices?

Businesses need to catch up with our modern times and be welcoming of every person’s life outside work, and family choices. Anyone who joins a business can wear different hats throughout the day - she can be a wife, a mother, a director of talent and operations and someone with a side hustle business.

He can be a husband, a father, an executive creative director, who runs a children's creative academy on the side. I believe when you bring in talent with such different experiences and richness in life, they can only bring a more diverse voice and energy to the work table.

Having been through starting up a business while pregnant etc – what have you learned?

It was definitely not an easy task to start a business from scratch when I was 5 months’ pregnant. There were a lot of logistics to plan, infrastructure to sort out, systems to set up, talent to hire for 72andSunny Singapore, but it has been an incredible ride which I would not give up for anything. I’ve learned so much in the last 22 months and it has definitely made me a stronger person.

And what about being a parent and working?

Juggling parenthood and a good career (and demanding side hustle) is not an easy feat. I believe it requires an immense amount of discipline: discipline in time management; discipline in energy management and most importantly, discipline in switching your emotional states.

I am a wife, a mother of two young children, a director of talent and operations at 72andSunny and also the co-founder of nana & bird, a multi-label store. I have to be disciplined in how I allocate my time, energy and emotions across the day: setting clear boundaries of when to be a devoted wife and mother; when to focus my energy at work and give it my best and then switch to my side business in the evening.

At times, it can feel like a set of Jenga blocks - if my team-mates at work or my family are not there as support blocks/pillars, the whole thing can fall into pieces. It takes a village (or maybe two) to make this work but it can and will work. And it can be a lot of fun.

How can agencies do more to help parents?

  • Understanding what motivates your talent. What makes them a "whole" person? What motivates them to perform better and push harder? As an employer, do your best to protect that time for them because they will come back the next day giving you 120%.
  • Respect his/her time. It's because that time is compartmentalized into blocks and each block is dedicated to a multi-faced life. Don't remove a Jenga block when you know that move may crumble the tower.
  • Empathy, not sympathy. We chose to be parents - we need you to empathize, not sympathize.

What does 72andSunny do around flexible working and how does that work?

I am on a four-day work week. I have Fridays off and that is my "Chiewy" day when I can hit the gym, spend some time on the shop floor (nana & bird) and spend the afternoon with my 18-month old daughter. I also start my workday earlier, at 8 am, so that I can end in time to pick up my elder daughter from school at 5 pm - school runs are precious to me!

At 72andSunny, we have a few other Flexible Work initiatives in place, including:

  • A Homies Policy where we encourage our team to work from home or offsite once a week if they feel it's more productive.
  • We also give all our full-time employees unlimited paid time off - we trust them to use this wisely, and everyone works to a different rhythm and re-charge schedule.
  • We believe nobody should work weekends or late evenings unless occasionally absolutely necessary, and we have put a friendly ban on weekend emails.
  • We also advocate that most (internal) meetings should be 30 minutes or shorter, and where possible, held during a walk around the block rather than inside in a meeting room.

Do you think the industry as a whole does enough? What more could be done?

I think the industry can do better as a whole but I don't have full visibility of other agencies' talent guidelines or welfare plans to have a definitive POV. I think a lot of it comes down to the core four areas of understanding, listening, respect and empathy.

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