For a small business, losing an employee for 12 months on maternity leave can cause problems in how they cope with that absence, especially if they are a key member of staff. I have heard on the radio a number of times, a well-known business woman says that she will not employ a woman who has the potential to have a child. She is at least open about it, despite the legal, moral, ethical and business issues (she is shrinking the talent pool to employ from) and it is a strategy I would not advocate.
So how do you handle maternity leave?
1. Legal stuff – remember that any dismissal or action taken e.g. denied training, promotion, bonus etc because a woman is pregnant is automatically unfair. So once you have been told that an employee is pregnant do not assume things like: she won’t want to do that training now, or I’m not going to consider her for that promotion/job because she’ll be away. If you do, it could prove very expensive, there is no cap on compensation for discrimination cases. It does not mean you cannot say make redundancies if need be, but if you do you will need to be absolutely clear that any decision is not as a result of the pregnancy. Remember that there are no service criteria to make a discrimination claim. I have just advised a client through exactly that situation. Also, that she is allowed paid time off to attend antenatal and medical appointments (as is her partner for 2 antenatal visits) and any time off sick that is pregnancy related should not be used in any absence management or redundancy points system.
2. Health and Safety – As soon as you are notified that an employee is pregnant, carry out a risk assessment. This may be quite straight forward depending on the potential risks but there could be situations where she could be exposed to certain chemicals or substances which could be potentially harmful. In those situations, you will need to move her to a different job or modify her existing job to eliminate the risk. If this is not possible then she may be suspended on health and safety grounds which is paid.
3. Communicate – Although the employee does not have to officially notify you until 15 weeks before the expected due date, most will tell you well before this date. Remember for most this is a happy time but also a nervous one. They will be concerned about your reaction so be pleased for them, congratulate them, maybe a card or something, be positive. This will open up the communication channels and she is more likely to be open and honest with you in a positive environment than one where she may feel her job is threatened or picks up on any negatives vibes or comments. Use this positive atmosphere to discuss her plans, does she intend to return, what support she is looking for etc.This will help you get the information you need to plan for the maternity leave. Use this time to make sure she has all the information she needs which should be in your company handbook. If you haven’t got one, get one this is where they are important. She may want to share the maternity leave with her partner (who may work for someone else) so help with this would be useful.
4. Use Keeping in Touch days – Up to 10 days can be used during the maternity leave to help her keep in touch with the business. This may include coming in for the odd day or two to catch up on what’s happening, what’s changing, keep up to date with job, clients etc. These can be agreed before maternity leave starts and can be a useful way of maintaining the bond with the employee.
5. Decide how you will cover the maternity leave – Explore how you intend to cover the maternity leave. You could bring someone in temporary for the period or use it as an opportunity for some internal re-organisation. Do remember though that at the end of the maternity leave, she is entitled to return to the same job or similar job on the same terms and conditions.
6. Flexible working requests – You may get a request that she returns part time or some other flexible arrangement. You will need to consider this in line with legal requirements and the policy in your handbook. Use this as an opportunity as providing flexible working is a great way to attract and retain key employees and provide a great place to work. Flexible working requests are now open to all employees so be creative and keep an open mind.
Like many situations, good planning, communication and good management can help maternity leave be an opportunity for your business. If in doubt, seek advice first.