Changes to maternity legislation on 1 April 2007 include an increase in statutory paid leave from six to nine months, optional ‘keeping in touch’ days and an extension of the notice female staff must give to their employer when they wish to return from maternity leave. Sarah Fletcher asked HR professionals and industry experts how they expect these new developments to affect organisations.
The incoming changes to UK maternity regulations, set for 1 April 2007, the first of the two major trigger points for employment legislation in the year, is likely to have a significant impact upon the way in which businesses manage and provide for pregnant employees and the workers they leave behind. For the imminent new parents, the extension to paid maternity leave and optional contact days are positive steps, but what about their employers?
Not all organisations feel entirely positive about these new developments. “These regulations are effectively an extra tax on the business,” argues Lynn Hebb, HR manager of risk management specialists Strategic Thought. “The 2007 regulations will exacerbate all the issues [of meeting pregnant employees’ demands and expectations and in finding a suitable temporary replacement for the role] for us as a small company.”
Lynn Hebb, HR manager, Strategic Thought
Hebb says some pregnant employees exploit the already generous maternity provisions offered: “We find employees going on maternity tend to forget the extra support and help the company provides and our willingness to go further than necessary in being flexible and helping in terms of work-life balance. It is possibly symptomatic of what seems to me to be a ‘take-take’ culture but it tends to be very apparent in those going on maternity and does seem unfair to the males and childless females who do not have access to such generous provisions.”
This affects company policy and encourages the organisation to make allowances to avoid further problems, she continues: “We are a small organisation, currently with around 75 people in the UK and around 25 people in the USA. I have been speaking to our solicitor (employment) advisor today concerning holiday accrued during maternity leave. We have two employees who ‘know their rights’ and who are very insistent on every scrap of entitlement in terms of bonus and commission payments and accrued holiday during both the additional maternity leave and ordinary maternity leave.
“Our policy is not to pay holiday off if it cannot be taken but both of these employees are insisting on taking the leave in advance or having it paid off. Our legal advisors say that it is a very grey area and [it is] best [if] we do everything to keep these employees happy. However, we are already an organisation that bends over backwards to help staff achieve a good work-life balance and the maternity regulations are already difficult for us as a business.”
Lynn Hebb, HR manager, Strategic Thought
Impact of extended paid maternity leave
These changes are all about choice for the employee, argues Lynne Keeble, project manager of the childcare vouchers programme at Accor. By extending the period of paid maternity leave, the option of staying off work for a longer time seems more appealing. “We’re delighted with the legislation – it encourages more choice for parents who wish to stay off work longer,” she says.
As the increase in paid maternity leave from six to nine months is likely to increase the number of employees who take a longer maternity leave than under the current legislation, this could cause problems for the business in finding a suitable replacement for the experienced worker that is absent. Keeble argues that this should be seen as an opportunity for organisations to train other staff and improve the skills base.
Extending the notice period an employee must give if she wishes to return from maternity leave should ease this problem by giving organisations more time to prepare. Jo Guy, HR manager of Racal Antennas Ltd, says this is fairer on the member of staff who has temporarily filled the job, as 28 days is not much notice to announce the employee is about to lose this role as the original worker is returning from maternity leave.
However, Hebb points out that this carries significant operational problems: “In addition to the cost and the loss of an experienced resource for often a whole business plan year, we find it difficult to hold a role open for such a long time and to temporarily fill the role with a good quality candidate, particularly as we normally don’t have a definite idea of whether or not the employee is intending to return and in a full-time role.”
“I don’t think it will have any effect on our ability to retain and motivate staff,” comments Guy. “Being a small company and not offering anything other than statutory pay, the extra three months pay will not make that much difference. The cost implications are not huge as we can claim back most of the maternity pay, and the number of people we have had taking maternity leave in the last five years is less than two percent of our staff.”
Jo Guy, HR manager, Racal Antennas
Contact days are a good indication that the government realises that employees can’t take a long period of time off work and then return as if they’ve only been away for a few days, as it takes time to readjust to the patterns of working. Although organisations are generally positive about this step, Guy points out that good businesses would keep in contact with staff regardless of legislation forcing them to: “The keeping in touch days are a bit flaky! Any good company will keep in touch with female staff who are on maternity leave anyway – we always invite people in to attend important events or training days which we think they will benefit from.”
The cost of training programmes for employees on maternity leave must be a consideration, argues Guy: “If someone comes in for a full day’s training, we add it on to their holiday allowance when they return, but as they already accrue holiday when they are on maternity leave anyway, this could mount up if you have more days imposed on you.”
Any provision made must prove cost effective rather than acting purely as an exercise with no real business benefit: “Payment could also be made through the payroll for the odd day, as they are still effectively on the payroll even if they are not receiving any payment. You would have to make sure that if payment is made, a true value is gained by both employee and employer for that day – it should not just be a day for them to come in and sit around having a chat!”
Although Hebb is sympathetic to the need to maintian that elusive work-life balance, she argues that pregnant employees too often take advantage of the system: “Unfortunately, my experience as an HR practitioner of UK expectant mothers is that the psychological contract is thrown aside, often when they are taking time out of work for antenatal classes with all of their friends who are competing for the best package they can get from work. They to want to have their cake and eat it!”
Perhaps we should look to the US for guidance; “We currently have a pregnant employee in the USA where the regulations are very different,” says Hebb. “We have enhanced the maternity provision over in the USA as we think they do not go far enough and wanted to provide a bit more support. However, it is much easier to plan our business and cope with the cost of an employee on maternity leave in the USA.
“Comparing the employment environment in the USA and in the UK I am starting to wonder whether we should be employing most of our staff in the States.”