Today, regulations on Shared Parental Leave (SPL) come into force, but are employers ready to handle requests from the workforce? Flexible Boss seeks expert advice for those concerned about SPL or still finalising how they will handle the new right.
Under shared parental leave, parents will be able to share up to 12 months leave after the birth or adoption of a child, as long as they meet the eligibility criteria and the child is born or adopted on or after 5 April next year. Employers could start to receive notices of eligibility and the intention to take shared parental leave from January so they need to be planning their policies now. Subject to employer agreement, parents can chop and change, taking leave in different blocks.
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg last month set the bar for private sector employers when he announced that the civil service will offer equal parental pay and support to mothers and fathers from April next year.
“This means more fathers will be able to afford to take time off to spend caring for their new born children. More widely, I want to see this change blaze a trail for other public and private sector organisations to follow – making this option the norm for more working families and increasing the opportunities available to both sexes to earn and care across our society,” he said.
The civil service declaration was shortly followed by employers Deloitte, PwC and Shell, who stepped forward to confirm that they would enhance pay for employees on shared parental leave. Between them they employ 100,000 people. There is no legal obligation to treat SPL in the same way as maternity pay, but experts have pointed out the potential for workforce disharmony if this is not handled carefully.
To enhance or not to enhance?
Some have expressed concern that employers will stop enhancing maternity pay so they are taking an even-handed approach. Louise Gibson, an associate in the employment law team at law firm Howard Kennedy said: “A number of large organisations – most notably PwC, Shell and the Civil Service – have said they will extend enhanced maternity pay to parents taking shared parental leave, but the additional costs and administrative burden will simply be too great for many smaller firms.”
“We would not be surprised if some employers now retrench or withdraw enhanced maternity pay from new mothers rather than extending it to a broader category of employees (including new fathers) thus avoiding the risk of discrimination claims from fathers and reducing costs at the same time. It would be an unfortunate and unintended consequence of what is at its heart a piece of legislation aimed at supporting parents as child carers.”
Neil Pickering, director at Kronos, says despite its obvious benefits, shared parental leave will make managing a workforce more complex and is a challenge for small and medium-sized businesses. “Although parental leave is planned, it still carries with it costs, management headaches, risks, and productivity hits,” he says.
And yet, commentators remain divided on the likely take up of the right. Initial government estimates predict take up of between 2% and 6%, and a survey out today by Glassdoor claims only 24% of men agree that parental leave should be shared.
However, a recent survey by law firm Linklaters suggests 63% of men and women would be interested in taking SPL. It added that much depends on whether employers decide to enhance pay. Clearly this is a crucial dimension of change and one with which many have been wrestling.
Flexible Boss asked industry experts for their top tips for employers…
Stewart Gee, head of information and guidance, Acas
“Flexible working can be a real benefit for business and employees. Good bosses know that many talented staff see the ability to work flexibly as key to their engagement; and that having employees with a healthy work life balance can help their business succeed and grow.
“Shared parental leave will enable working parents to share maternity or adoption leave to allow both parents greater involvement with their child’s first year and enable them to retain contact with the workplace more easily. The amount of leave available is taken from the mother’s entitlement to maternity or adoption leave – and can be shared between the two parents, in alternating blocks or at the same time, or the lion’s share can be taken by either parent.”
“Employers are encouraged to read Acas’ free guidance on Shared Parental Leave www.acas.org.uk/SPL to understand how the new changes will affect you; to develop and consult on robust policies which are right for your business; and to manage leave requests fairly.
“Thinking now about what policies work best for your organisation, and managing them consistently is key. And encouraging employees to have early conversations with their line managers will help establish what leave is being considered and what arrangements would work best for everyone. This means that employers can be much clearer, much sooner, about what leave their employee is planning; and can support their people to remain productive and stay in touch during the child’s first year.”
Sarah Jackson, chief executive, Working Families
“There is no doubt that some employers are nervous about shared parental leave and what it will mean for their business, especially if they have a high percentage of men in their workforce. The new regulations can seem complicated on first view and so we are advising employers to start thinking about their approach to SPL as soon as possible, if they haven’t already done so. Acas has produced some really clear guidelines for both the employer and the employee which demystifies much of the process.
“Working Families is advising employers to seriously consider matching contractually enhanced pay and benefits during SPL to those currently available to women employees who are on maternity leave. The potential gains, from an engagement point of view, are substantial. But we realise that, at present, many employers either do not feel ready to match their maternity package or they only offer statutory leave and pay. These employers should concentrate on communications to promote SPL as a new statutory right which the organisation welcomes and which it encourages all employees who are expecting or planning children to consider for their family.”
Emma Codd, managing partner for talent, Deloitte
“Supporting working families is crucial for any organisation that wants to attract and retain the best people. While the debate around maternity leave commitments has been live for some time now, new shared parental leave legislation will be an important tool for encouraging organisations to improve their support for new fathers as well as mothers.
“Since launching our changes to agile working in June this year, we have seen more of our people feeling trusted to make decisions on where and when they get their work done, to help them find a career-life balance that works. What may be surprising to some is that 50% of the requests for Deloitte’s Time Out arrangement – a four week block of unpaid leave in addition to normal leave entitlement – have come from men. The main impact of the introduction of shared parental leave is likely to be the growth of this theme, across the UK business community, with both fathers and mothers seeking to balance their family commitments with their careers.”
Jessica Chivers, coaching psychologist, author and founder of The Talent Keeper Specialists
“Use the policy as a prompt for a broader canvassing of views of parents and parents-to-be in your organisation about how you can help them be at their best. A good starting point is to seek views on flexible working, which although applicable to all employees, can be particularly relevant to employees with children. Trusting ‘output-oriented cultures’ that give employees autonomy about how and where they work tend to have higher performing workforces than organisations with a ‘bums-on-seats culture.’
Recognise that anyone who is going to be out of workplace for a couple of months or more will probably benefit from keeping in touch communications. Agree these in advance of your team member taking leave. If a team member is out for a longer stretch, consider investing in comeback coaching to help the person shrink the time it takes for him or her to be back at their pre-leave performance level or higher.
“Remember that encouraging active fatherhood and making it culturally acceptable for men to take up SPL could be one of the best things you do for your female employees. Changing cultural expectations about the role of mothers and fathers paves the way for a greater number of women at the top of our organisations.”
Annabel Jones, HR director, ADP
“As shared parental leave is a new concept, HR directors (HRDs) are instrumental in raising awareness of what it means and educating employees about their rights. They must also be prepared to answer questions from employees about its implications and benefits.
“The first step for HRDs is to make sure that their organisation has a policy and process in place to comply with the new legislation. This must clearly indicate how the process works, how much leave is available and who is eligible. It is also important to ensure employees are aware of the developments and what the new legislation could mean for them in the future. Our research shows that more than one in ten workers have not even heard of shared parental leave, so there is a role for HR in communicating the company policy and how employees can take advantage of the new rules.
“Working closely with line managers and other functions will ensure that message filters effectively down the organisation, while HR systems and company intranets should also be updated to reflect the changes.”
Simon Kerr-Davis, senior employment law specialist, Linklaters
“Policy decisions need to be taken now, in particular on whether to offer pay enhancements and if so at what level. Enhancements offered to male and female employees taking SPL should be the same.
“It is unlikely to be discriminatory to offer enhancements to maternity leave, but provide only the statutory rate of pay for SPL, but it is likely to raise questions from the workforce. Employers will need to produce a clear policy and be ready to explain the position to employees. Remember that you may need to make amendments to other family friendly policies to cross refer to SPL.
“Forms and declarations need to be prepared for employees to curtail maternity/adoption leave, to demonstrate that the employee meets the eligibility criteria and to arrange each period of leave. Employers should ensure that line managers are aware both of the new rights and the approach that the employer has decided to take in relation to requests for SPL.
“In addition to employee policies, HR should be considering how the business would evaluate and respond to requests for discontinuous leave, and how these periods might be covered in practice.”
Anna Fletcher, director, Wragge Lawrence Graham
“The success of SPL in achieving the government’s desire to create more flexible leave for parents will come down to take up rates. There’s certainly increasing interest in the new regime according to recent surveys, which may come as a surprise to some employers.
“But if the system is incompatible within an organisation’s culture and no equalisation with enhanced contractual maternity pay where that is offered is introduced, employees won’t apply. This may foster resentment and may give other organisations who embrace the new regime and encourage take up a competitive advantage.”
Jennifer Liston-Smith, head of coaching, My Family Care
“Speak to your workforce on the topic of shared parental leave. Look at the demographic of your male working population and see how they have behaved before.
“Consulting with interested parties such as the company’s family network, if they have one, or fathers in the business who can be viewed as role models, will help give you an idea as to how many members of staff will take up the opportunity to do shared parental leave.”
Main image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/14657061@N00/