Parental leave – the way forward

Helen Froud, director of corporate services at Worcestershire County
Council, examines the challenges for personnel practitioners in implementing
parental leave

The Parental Leave directive is still hot news in the nation’s workplaces.
Research released this summer by the CBI has shown that 60 per cent of their
members consider that family-friendly policies are a major issue for the
nation’s boardrooms. Issues surrounding working parents continue to hog the
headlines: last month, for example, the Department for Education and Employment
launched its good practice guide for improving work-life balance

But where will this debate lead? The Parental Leave regulations introduced up
to three months’ unpaid leave for new mothers and fathers, provided their baby
was born after 15 December 1999. Adoptive parents are also eligible. The
regulations were published with a "fallback" or model scheme that
automatically takes effect unless an organisation replaces it with a more
comprehensive version of its own. Insiders at the CBI indicate that the
majority of firms have simply adopted the "fallback" scheme.

Although the draft regulations were well-circulated in the UK among HR
professionals, the final detail was published only a matter of weeks before
their implementation date last December. This has led a number of firms to
complain that they had little time to consider the implications of the new
requirements and consult the workforce before they received requests for leave
from staff.

Fair implementation?

The European Court is now being called upon to decide whether the
eligibility date chosen by the Government was fair. The TUC has retained Cherie
Booth QC to argue that the December 1999 eligibility date is arbitrary, and
that the original directive date of 1996 is more relevant. "We had hoped
that the new European fast-track procedure would enable this to be speedily
resolved," says Booth. "However, we have recently learned that our
case was not referred in time to qualify for this new procedure." Cases
can take up to 18 months to resolve and it is now clear that we will not be
able to rely on an early legal decision to assist in formulating HR policy.

A question of pay

Before the regulations appeared, there was much speculation about whether
paid leave would be provided for. Despite much campaigning on this issue, the
Government has so far indicated that it has no intention to pay directly for
leave: it is clearly for us as employers to decide if we can afford to pay. A
recent survey by the Local Government Employers Association showed that 76 per
cent of council employees already benefit from some paid leave – but the
majority of these only have around two weeks’ pay from their employer, from a
total of three months’ leave.

Like many large employers, Nationwide Building Society offers five days’
paid paternity leave, but has so far decided not to pay for parental leave.
‘We’ve agreed with our trade union to review take-up of the scheme once it’s
been in operation for a year’, says Andrew Powles, senior manager, employee
relations, at Nationwide. "We see parental leave as part of the whole
work/life balance agenda."

The DfEE agrees with the Nationwide’s approach, and is reportedly keen to
see parental leave as part of an all-encompassing approach to work-life
balance. It is fast becoming clear that a failure to link parental leave with
broader staff lifestyle benefits will become an ‘own goal’ for business. A
survey published in the July edition of Management Today by Ceridian
Performance Partners found that 55 per cent of managers believe childless staff
resent family-friendly policies.

Time for best practice

The experience of US employers may be of use in helping us to establish best
practice here in Britain. The US Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993 also
provided for 13 weeks’ unpaid parental leave, and employers found that after a
slow start, requests for leave took off. But the requests that came in were not
confined to bids for help with managing childcare responsibilities.

Skip Schlenk, who heads up AT&T’s work/life programme in the US, says:
"Along with requests for time off to care for new babies, we had calls
from staff concerned about eldercare and out-of-school care." AT&T now
runs an integrated work-life service catering for family leave, access to help
for the elderly and dependant relatives, and giving assistance in locating suitable
childcare facilities.

On the edge of the law

Thorny issues relating to eligibility for parental leave have already begun
to emerge. In our experience, most of the hotspots arise where employees’ needs
are neither straightforward nor conform to "traditional" views of how
a family should be constituted. Only HR teams that have taken the time to think
them through will see the full business benefits from the new law.

So, what are the steps we think HR managers need to take to ensure that
their parental leave policies are a success?

First, think carefully about how your parental leave policy links to
employment diversity policies. If your company’s equal opportunities policy
makes explicit reference to equal treatment for same-sex partners, it may prove
hard to deny parental leave to a same-sex couple having or adopting a baby.

And what about more complex family relationships, where a male employee may
well qualify for leave as a parent in more than one family unit?

Some of these issues may only occur infrequently, but it is as well to
resolve the questions early, to avoid doubt if questioned. More common is the
situation where both parents are in close proximity to one another at work. How
will you cope with simultaneous requests for parental leave from both partners?

Broader implications

As well as focusing our minds as employers, the Parental Leave regulations
have also helped to unearth a much broader debate in the public mind about the
relative roles of women and men in the workplace.

The Industrial Society has captured the mood of the moment with its Futures
Provocation report, published in August, called Mothers versus Men: Why Women
Lose at Work. The author, Richard Reeves, argues that so long as women still
bear the brunt of responsibility for childcare, they will continue to lose out
in the workplace. "When the phrases ‘career man’ or ‘working father’ have
ceased to sound silly… women will have a shot at equal status in the office
and boardroom. Not before," says Reeves.

So what is the parental leave debate really about – gender, family
relationships or work-life balance? Whatever the original intention of the 1996
directive, few of us as HR professionals can afford to ignore the ripples that
are now running through the employment marketplace. There is little doubt that
once again, a profound change is underway in the way that society views work,
family and leisure.

There is no telling where this debate will end. However, to ensure the
longevity of our organisations, HR professionals must take on the role of
corporate seers and try to predict which employment policies will best deliver
them the staff to do the jobs their operations require.

Some suggestions for the road ahead

– Begin a dialogue with staff. Research carried out by the TUC in Bristol
has shown that staff preferences for flexible working and work/life balance
often differ from managers’ assumptions.

– Think carefully and inventively when implementing parental leave. Don’t
assume that parenting problems end when maternity leave is over. Work in the US
has shown that the majority of work-life balance problems begin when children
reach school age, in other words, when parents are no longer eligible for
leave.

– Ensure that employment policies deliver the kind of behaviour your
organisation requires. It is no good promoting a range of family-friendly
policies if your organisation – and its senior managers – display antipathy to
work-life balance.

– Ensure that employment policies in your organisation reflect both your
current workforce and the kind of workforce you would like to attract. Young,
fast-moving Internet start-ups may have little use for parental leave policies
now, but if they survive, they may need them in five years’ time.

– Finally have a long-term strategy to deal with the implications of a
judgement from Europe changing the eligibility dates for parental leave.
Consider whether a voluntary change now would save heartache and employee
relations later.

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