The Women and Equalities Committee’s recent report into maternity discrimination presents a grim picture of the level of discrimination faced by women returning to work after maternity leave.
While we have a raft of legal protection in the UK, and despite the fact that many companies have policies promoting a family-friendly workplace, discrimination is on the rise. The report indicates that things are worse now than a decade ago.
A ‘baby penalty’ clearly exists across businesses in the UK as many women reported feeling pushed out of the workplace after having a child or announcing their pregnancy.
The fact is that women make up 50% of the UK workforce and more needs to be done to retain talent, especially when businesses spend a significant amount of time and money nurturing such talent. This is something that is recognised by some of UK’s leading businesses. Companies including Barclays, John Lewis Partnership and Transport for London are founding members of the ‘Working Forward – supporting pregnancy and maternity rights’, an initiative launched by the EHRC. The aim of the initiative is to eradicate discrimination in the workplace and make best use of pregnant women and women returning from maternity leave.
HR managers play a crucial role in this as they are best placed to identify potential problems and ensure they are dealt with effectively.
So what can HR managers do to pull the red card on the ‘baby penalty’?
- Employers and employees need to be made aware of their obligations and rights. Research published by the EHRC earlier this year found that 55% of employers interviewed admitted that they provided no guidelines, training or support to managers on managing pregnancy and maternity related issues. It’s important that managers are trained and made aware of company policies, so that they can advise the employee about her maternity rights, including in relation to time off for ante-natal appointments and Keeping in Touch (KIT) days.
- Pay raises and bonus awards should also be monitored with HR ensuring that managers can defend them. Organisations should make the most of appraisal procedures and include an appraisal for the pregnant employee either just before she starts maternity leave or at least include her in the scheme while she is away. It’s good practice to keep a record of all employees’ achievements and to keep everyone in mind when pay rises and bonuses are agreed.
- Along with the manager, HR should consult with the employee about what will happen to her role in her absence and on her return from maternity leave. She may have suggestions for the best type of person to cover the role, what are the priorities for the time she is away and who are the key stakeholders, and how she would like client relationships handled in her absence.
- Arrange a back to work meeting. The aim should be to support and integrate the employee back into the workplace. Find out if there are any adjustments that she needs to transition her back into the workplace. Update her on any changes that have taken place in the team and the organisation and discuss any training that may be required to bring her up to date on any technical changes in her role. It is also useful to include a return to work plan, which records actions agreed in the meeting.
- Manage the managers – make sure those in direct contact with the maternity returner know the law and are compliant. This can often be through training, which is regularly refreshed in line with changes to the maternity policy and changes in legislation.
- Deal with any maternity/discrimination complaints sensitively and focus on achieving a quick resolution. The relationship often breaks down because employers adopt a ‘deny all’ approach despite what the evidence suggests. Often a discussion followed by some adjustments between the employer and the employee can make a big difference and help resolve disputes and retain that person within the organisation.
- Promote a family-friendly work place – having policies in place is not enough. HR should discuss flexible working options with business leaders so that a fair and consistent approach is adopted across the business. Paid parental leave and paid paternity leave are two fairly standard family friendly offers but some companies have also offer term-time only, part-time or job sharing options. Others have introduced buddy systems that help returning mothers back into the workplace and larger organisations have working parent forums or offer access to industry and city working parent forums, all of which can help returning employees.
With organisations spending so much time and money on recruiting and retaining staff, it’s doesn’t make sense for businesses to discriminate against mothers. It haemorrhages talent and in the war for talent, you need every bit of ammunition to help attract the right people.
If that means adopting policies and frameworks that help to retain working mums, then you should add these policies to your armour.
About the author:
Homa Wilson is an employment solicitor and senior associate at Hodge Jones & Allen.