How to manage parental leave as a small business

More employees are expecting flexibility at work, so make sure you're well prepared for maternity and paternity leave.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 05 May 2016

A hefty Equality and Human Rights Commission report last year found 54,000 women in the UK lose their jobs early each year due to maternity leave discrimination. Many employers are trying to improve this – but small firms can struggle with the detail of what’s expected of them. So what can you do as a business owner to make the process smoother for everyone involved?

Keep communication open

Kate Cooper, head of research at the Institute of Leadership & Management says, ‘The first step in successful parental leave management is to encourage and engage in honest discussion with both the parent-to-be and the rest of the team.’ This keeps everyone in the loop.

Ben Black, director of employment benefits firm My Family Care, agrees. ‘If you get the culture right then honest conversations are the norm,' he points out. 'And speaking honestly with your manager and colleagues is the absolute key to a successful maternity and paternity transition.’

Swot up on your legal obligations

So what does the law require? Broadly speaking you need to provide paid time off for your employee to receive antenatal care, maternity leave, offer maternity pay benefits and guarantee protection against unfair dismissal or other discriminatory treatment. Nicola Mullineux, senior employment law specialist at Peninsula, says you should have a policy setting out to employees what they can expect to happen once they inform you they’re expecting.

‘Policies don’t need to be convoluted,’ she explains. ‘A pregnant woman is entitled to a maximum of 52 weeks’ maternity leave; a woman’s partner is entitled to a maximum of two weeks’ paternity leave.’

Sharing the burden

On top of that, shared parental leave was introduced last year, allowing parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave (37 of which is paid), if they meet certain eligibility criteria. For fathers, it essentially replaces additional paternity leave and aims to give parents more flexibility in when they take time off. Liz Farrell, employment law consultant at NatWest Mentor, says, ‘There are a number of factors which need to be considered such as a requirement for the parent choosing to take parental leave to have at least 26 weeks consecutive service with the employer, and for their partner also to meet employment and earnings requirement in the previous 66 weeks.’

Zeeshan Hussain, an employment lawyer at Simpson Millar adds, ‘You need to decide whether to pay the statutory or enhanced pay.’ While the latter can be painful for smaller companies ‘if it means bringing key staff back sooner, it could be an investment well worth making’.

Dealing with the absence

This can be the trickiest practical concern for small firms as a single person can be much more fundamental to the business than in a larger organisation. But the absence of one member can provide a chance to assess the rest of the team and ‘encourage less experienced colleagues to step up and assume more responsibility,’ Cooper points out.

At the same time, make sure workers aren’t overburdened. Arranging regular check-ins can provide an opportunity for employees to air concerns and suitable adjustments made ‘before the situation becomes unmanageable and the parent becomes the target of resentment,’ Cooper says.

Think about yourself

What if it's you, the business owner, who wants parental leave? Nicky Rudd set up Padua Communications seven years ago and when she became pregnant found ‘there was very little in the way of advice for someone in my situation’. To prepare the team for her absence Rudd ‘made a list of all the processes where I was involved and then looked at the team and designated’.

Breaking this down to individual tasks should allow you to find the appropriate person for each one. Then hold a company day so all the staff are briefed and don’t forget to let your clients know about the changes.

If you’re pregnant, make sure you give yourself enough time to sort this out. ‘No one mentioned the physical side of things – it’s knackering being pregnant,’ Rudd says. ‘It was like being hungover for ten months before the baby arrived.’

Getting back on board

Fiona Czerniawska’s firm, Source Global Research, is 75% female. She thinks employers should arrange a conversation when the employee is due to return to find out what their needs are and ‘how they’d like to configure their jobs within the constraints of the business’.

Too often employers don’t offer – and returnees don’t ask for – this conversation, ‘largely because rewriting the clauses of a standard contract can be a tiresome process’ and those coming back from leave don’t want to stick out even more. So she suggests moving away from such boilerplate contracts. ‘Everyone should have an individual contract in which standard clauses are included when appropriate, not by default.’

A small firm may not have 'reboarding' initiatives in place like bigger companies, but the fewer the employees, the better chance you have to make sure any returning member of staff is settling back in and doesn’t feel overwhelmed. Most important is fostering a workplace where employees feel confident in airing their hopes, plans and concerns. While accommodating parental leave can be an organisational challenge, open communication should make it all a great deal easier.

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