Work and families bill: parental rights

Jackie Bornor, head of HR, IG Index

How many children will the average couple have in a lifetime – one or two? Over a working life that doesn’t translate to a lot of time off and companies that are flexible enough to help them out will find that it is much easier to hold on to good employees than firms that don’t.

I think that less than 10% of men will take up the option of shared parental leave anyway. It will also take a long time for the stereotypes about childcare to change to such a degree that it will make a huge difference. Maybe it will happen with my son and daughter’s generation but at the moment the majority of men take their two-week paternity entitlement and combine it with annual leave, to take two to four weeks off after the birth of a child. Generally, that seems to be when they want to start working again.

I can’t really see that changing, so I don’t think that men will suddenly start taking six months off. But I do think it will give them a lot more confidence to ask for what they’re looking for, as it may make economic sense for a man to stay off work for a longer period if his wife is the higher earner. So for individual couples it will be a really good thing.

As far as HR goes, the changes will ask us to do a lot more planning. But people forget that with maternity you have a lot of time to prepare and any organisation that can’t think three months in advance is doing something wrong in the first place.

David Coates, associate director, Work Foundation

It’s not simply about the law: it’s about culture and how the responsibility for caring for children is constructed. Sweden, for instance, has very generous arrangements for paid maternity and paternity leave and yet men still don’t take their full entitlement as childcare is still seen as a job for mums.

That problem is deep-rooted in western culture – including the UK. It is also a problem with organisational culture, as some men may be reluctant to take leave because it might damage their promotion prospects.

Anecdotal evidence shows that some organisations identify the less committed by looking at who has taken all their leave or made use of flexible working. It is equally clear that if you want to get on, you have to put in the hours.

We did research last year and found that the biggest motivating factor for working long hours was the idea that if people put in the hours they will get promoted. So to change things we have to work hard to have a more accommodating environment in the workplace.

To do this you need to legislate but you also need to do more than that, as you can’t change a culture overnight. It’s a matter of the government, childcare campaigners, parental rights campaigners, good employers and trade unions working hard to identify best practice and promoting the benefits of parental leave.

That way the law will eventually shift the culture. So while the law is essential it’s not sufficient. Ultimately it’s up to employers to create an environment where parents can take leave without fear.

Jenny Lanyon, senior operations manager, PPC Worldwide

I think the new measures would help people enormously. I spent quite a long time living in Germany and these things are more equal in mainland Europe. We are definitely lagging behind in the UK as there is a huge discrepancy with regards to maternity and paternity leave in particular. But I don’t think it will be straightforward, as there has to be a huge cultural change too.

HR is the most likely source to help this along as it can look both ways and see things from the employees’ and employers’ perspectives. HR needs to be proactive to let everyone know that the law exists and encourage them to use it. At the same time, HR has to put in place some structures that allow line managers to cope with the new circumstances, by changing scheduling and rotas. Otherwise managers may suddenly find that someone has left work for six months and know nothing about it.

But in general, organisations need to be aware that this is the way of the future. Parental arrangements are changing dramatically and will not be arranged on the same stereotypes of the past. Particularly, as fathers want to be more involved these days.

And it should be possible to cope with the changes whatever industry you work in, as we have been offering generous arrangements and operate in the most challenging work environment possible. You have to think about things differently and remove the thought tramlines you’ve got used to.

Richard Wainer, senior policy adviser in the employment and skills group, CBI

Employers do recognise the pressures of modern life and that family-friendly policies can help employees and employers enormously. But the legislation should really make a balance between parental rights and the needs of employers.

While the government is doing some things to balance the situation out like increasing notice periods for mums to return to work and making it clear in legislation that employers can contact mums during maternity leave, we feel that it is not enough.

The new announcement on paternity leave wasn’t expected as it wasn’t mentioned in the government’s election manifesto. We feel that it puts all the burden and risk on employers and is likely to hit small business particularly hard. Somewhere down the line employers are going to come under huge pressure to make it paid leave because maternity pay already is and fathers will start demanding the same.

If you look at the statistics, the UK has some of the most generous family-friendly policies in the whole of Europe. The length of maternity leave in the EU is 14 weeks, yet in the UK we offer more than 24. In both France and Germany it is limited to 16 weeks. If the changes do come in we will also have one of the longest periods of statutory paternity leave.

We have no problems with fathers being treated the same as mothers – it is simply that this is yet another form of employment legislation and the cumulative burden of the government’s extra demands is starting to take its toll.

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