Tracey Eker, founder and CEO of flexible working job site Flexiworkforce.com, outlines the implications of shared parental leave for employers and considers how they can best prepare.
In April Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and Statutory Shared Parental Pay will come into force, meaning that the parents of babies born after April 5th, and those who adopt after April 5th, will be permitted to share parental leave. According to a government report, about 285,000 working couples will be eligible to share leave under the new rules, announced last year.
How does Shared Parental Leave work?
- SPL will enable parents to suggest a flexible pattern of leave to their employer.
- Workers will have the right to take SPL in up to 3 separate blocks, although their employer can agree to more.
- They may also split each block into several shorter periods of work and leave.
- The rules mean that parents can also take time off at the same time.
The pattern of leave must be agreed between the employee and employer with eight weeks’ notice. ACAS has outlined a guide to the rules, stating that employers and employees should be aware of the new rights.
The introduction of Shared Parental Leave is evidence of the burgeoning need for agility in the UK workforce, and the fact that employers should be more in touch with the needs of their employees. Unlike the flexible working legislation introduced in June 2014 (in which workers only have the right to have their request properly considered) shared parental leave gives permanent employees the right to take the leave in the same way as maternity leave.
One might hope that the arrival of Shared Parental Leave will have a positive effect on workplace inequality, including the gender pay gap. Throughout the years, men have benefitted from being able to advance their careers without the interruption of childcare responsibilities. The move towards SPL will enable the responsibility of childcare to be shared more equally, meaning that the maternity leave and the subsequent entry back into the workforce should be less challenging for women.
Communication is key
Shared Parental Leave will represent a huge mind shift for many employers. And for small and medium-sized businesses without specialist HR departments, the changes may appear daunting and difficult to navigate.
High quality communication between employer and employee is key to adapting effectively to Shared Parental Leave. It is important for employers to be approachable so that employees know that they can discuss their needs and preferences with regards to SPL before submitting a formal leave booking, to encourage staff to meet to discuss the issue before.
In addition, it is possible that not all employees will be aware of how the new legislation will affect their rights, so it is prudent to ensure that your staff are informed about the introduction of SPL. This also applies to line managers who may be employees’ first point of contact. Training on maternity and paternity rights would be effective in ensuring that all employees are aware of new rights associated with SPL.
Be aware of potential complications
It is a good idea for employers to put appropriate processes in place which will allow them to work out employee entitlements.
Another important thing to consider is how the business will cope with requests for multiple requests for SPL. As part of the new legislation, parents will be able to return to work before returning to paid leave. Employers should establish appropriate processes for how shorter periods of leave will be covered, and how the duration taken by an individual for SPL will be monitored.
The fact that many companies offer enhanced maternity pay to employees on statutory maternity leave means that employers must consider the implications of not offering similar benefits to those on shared parental leave. Offering this as a benefit to employees on shared parental leave may help with staff retention rates and will enable employers to attract high quality candidates to their organisation.
Additionally, there is a risk that employers who do not offer similar benefits to candidates on shared parental leave may be accused of sex discrimination. Employers must make a decision early as to how they will deal with these kinds of issues.
Appreciate the business case for flexible working
Shared parental leave is an important step towards greater equality in the workforce. An increase in flexible working across the board would ultimately contribute to a fairer society, and the gender pay gap may even vanish after increasing the availability of flexible working opportunities in higher-paid occupations.
However, there is also a strong business case for flexible working. Several studies have found that employees who are permitted to work flexibly are more engaged and productive than those who are not permitted to work flexibly. One study has found that 81% of business owners and senior managers see flexible working as a way to improve business productivity.
In addition, companies who offer flexible working upfront in job advertisements are more likely to be able to attract and retain the candidates that their business needs – something that will become more and more important as the skills shortage progresses.
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