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Ask the expert: Maternity leave job changes

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An employee has returned from maternity leave to a much lesser role and feels sidelined. John Brandon and Esther Smith advise on what her options are.

The question

 
I have recently returned to work from 26 weeks’ maternity leave. During my leave, maternity cover was sought, which started in April, and I returned to work in May. The person selected was told that I would not return for at least a year (not the case) and based on this took the job. I was called to a meeting to discuss my post a month before my return date, to be told that I would be heading up a different area as I should be on ‘light duties’. My agreement to the change was based on having it in writing and that my position would not be weakened should I accept.
 
I received the job description upon my return without any consultation. There are a number of areas that are not the same and it’s a much lesser role. I have objected to some of the changes, I have spoken to our HR professionals who suggest I go for a grievance (not worth the paperwork). I feel totally sidelined – I no longer manage staff, and I have been given a bigger part of the estate to manage from an impossible position, which means lots of travel, and my position within the office has been dramatically reduced.
 
Before maternity leave, I covered the whole of Europe, my boss was absent from the office 80% of the time, so I covered his role and I managed six staff locally and oversaw six others. The person employed to cover my maternity leave is now responsible for this role. Can you advise?
 

Legal advice

 

John Brandon, solicitor, Speechly Bircham LLP

 

John Brandon can be contacted at [email protected] . For further information, please visit www.speechlys.com.
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Esther Smith, partner, Thomas Eggar

 
The advice of your HR professionals seems sensible, and your starting point should be to put in a grievance. You have the right, as I am sure you are aware, to return to your existing role following your ordinary maternity leave. The only variance on this position would be if you have agreed with your employer to return to a different role or change your job in some way. It appears from what you have said that you have agreed to the change in role, and as you have already returned, albeit that you did not get the job description for the new role you had agreed to until after your return, and therefore it is going to be difficult for you to argue that you have been prevented from exercising your statutory right to return to your previous job, as you voluntarily agreed the change.
 
You could try and argue that you felt under duress to accept the new role, given the company’s comments about ‘light duties’, but again the route to pursue this argument would initially be through a grievance process.
 
If you really don’t feel that the grievance process is worth the paperwork, that suggests that you cannot really be that unhappy with the new role and the position you are in. If you are, then you have to take positive steps to address it and follow the advice of the HR people.
 
 
Esther Smith is a partner in Thomas Eggar’s Employment Law Unit. For further information, please visit www.thomaseggar.com.
 
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Thank you.