Shared parental leave: a labour of love?

The parents of babies due on or after 5 April 2015 will be the first to benefit from new shared parental leave rules. By August 2014, some HR professionals will begin receiving enquiries from staff about their organisation’s policy surrounding shared leave. Jo Faragher looks at the issues.

If you are a father in Iceland and you decide not to take parental leave after the birth of your child, you are the exception rather than the rule. Just under 90% of Icelandic fathers take leave, and mothers and fathers are entitled to three months’ non-transferable leave each, plus three months extra to share.

The introduction of new shared parental leave provisions in October this year, for babies with an expected week of childbirth on or after 5 April 2015, aims to bring the UK more in line with progressive European workplaces and attitudes. Mothers will continue to have a right to 52 weeks’ maternity leave, but will have the option to share that leave with their partners after the first two weeks post-childbirth.

“The Children and Families Act 2014 is all about giving families more choice in how they parent and encouraging parents to be economically active,” says Jennifer Liston-Smith, head of coaching and consultancy at advisory company My Family Care. “In fact, in many cases, legislation is only just catching up with the way families already work and share parenting.”

Administrative burden

However, while most HR professionals applaud the broader altruistic goals behind the introduction of shared parental leave, few are fully prepared for its administrative impact.

The notification requirements alone are complex, giving employees the right to request up to three different periods of leave, which can be taken and shared in blocks of at least one week. Parents can take the leave concurrently, if desired, and there is no obligation for the partner’s employer to provide evidence of his or her eligibility, so this must be taken on trust.

Seeing as the first parents eligible to take leave will not do so until next April at the earliest, many organisations have taken a “wait and see” approach while the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills finalises the regulations and issues clearer guidance. A recent survey of HR professionals by My Family Care and law firm Hogan Lovells found that only 15% of respondents have a very clear idea of what they are doing, while more than half have either just started thinking about it or are still ironing out issues.

In reality, however, organisations could start receiving informal enquiries about the legislation as early as August this year, while formal notifications should start arriving next February, so policies will need to be ready long before.

“If you start with the view that you don’t know how many people are likely to take it up, you’ll probably cope OK with the first request,” says employment partner Jessica Corsi of law firm Doyle Clayton. “But if you get more, how can you ensure managers are being consistent and fair?” A sensible approach might be to deal with each request on its own terms, she advises, but it would be helpful to start thinking now about the broad approaches your organisation will take to the new rights.

Discrimination risk

One of the risks associated with the new provisions is the potential for sex discrimination claims – which could be linked to either pay or dealing with requests for leave. Tom Kerr Williams, partner at DLA Piper, has argued that deciding not to offer enhanced shared parental pay when an employer offers this for mothers could potentially lead to discrimination claims from men.

To avoid this risk when dealing with requests from different team members, line manager training will be essential. Most workplaces will be used to women leaving for extended periods to have a baby, but some managers may find it unusual if a man asks for extended time off and be unsure of how to react. If there is evidence they have refused a request based on gender rather than a genuine business reason, the employer could find itself facing an employment tribunal.

Preparing line managers

At banking group Citi, manager training around parental leave is already embedded into the working culture. The company offers a range of benefits for new parents, including significantly enhanced maternity pay, transition workshops for returners and a network purely for new fathers. “We found that, for our business, this is the single biggest differentiator – the quality of manager intervention,” says Carolanne Minashi, EMEA head of diversity, employee relations and engagement.

Training for managers dealing with any kind of maternity, paternity or adoption leave is mandatory for this reason, she adds: “Policy can only take you so far. It’s about the interaction between managers and employees when someone goes on leave. They need to think about it holistically, not just about how they will cover the role or cope with that person’s absence.”

In preparing for shared parental leave, Minashi does not disclose Citi’s precise plans. However, she and her team acknowledge the potential cost of matching what the company currently offers for mothers to partners as well: “We’re looking hard at how we adopt shared parental leave so we don’t undermine what we’ve achieved already. We want to be able to juggle that additional cost and still be a leading employer in this area.”

Unknown costs

Budgeting for shared parental leave is an issue with no definitive solution. The Government’s impact assessment on the new legislation only takes into consideration the costs associated with offering shared parental pay at the minimum statutory level, predicting the total annual recurring cost to employers will be £45.5 million at most. The Government also assumes that take up of the new rights will be low (between 2% and 8%) reflecting the minimal take-up of additional paternity leave, which was introduced in 2011.

“Estimates tend to be based on the take-up of paternity leave, which is for a shorter period and not always enhanced,” explains Linda Jones, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons. “This is hard to explain to the finance department, so many organisations are taking a ‘wait and see what others are doing’ approach.”

Added to this is the complexity of running two schemes in tandem – mothers have to opt out of their maternity leave scheme to give rise to shared parental leave, and the level of pay on offer will likely influence at what point they choose to do so, or even whether or not they choose to do so at all. “There’s no point coming out of maternity leave until at least six weeks in because until then you qualify for 90% of salary,” says Jones.

There will, of course, be a number of (probably larger) employers who offer enhanced shared parental leave from the outset, because they feel this is the right thing to do and can absorb the cost. In countries where take-up of parental leave by fathers or partners is high, this tends to have been influenced by the level of pay on offer. In Sweden, Norway and Iceland (where take-up is 80% or greater), earnings replacement is anything between 80% and 100% of salary.

Cultural change

One of the biggest stumbling blocks will be overcoming a culture where fathers feel taking extended periods of leave could adversely impact their career progression, or that parental leave is only something for mothers. “Pay is just one factor. Employers need to get used to the idea that parenting is a shared experience, and this is more of a societal change,” says Alan Beazley, advice, policy and research specialist at the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion.

Jonathan Swan, from the charity Working Families, believes that a small number of trailblazer employers could create a domino effect towards a more equal approach to parental leave and pay. He also suggests that it will be younger fathers who start to normalise greater sharing of parental leave, and this is a trend that will only evolve over time.

“In forward-thinking organisations we will probably see a balancing out across the employee population,” he concludes. “So whether you’re a mother, a father or a carer for an elderly relative, you’ll see less difference in what organisations provide for you. There’ll be a single point of provision, rather than silos of employees.”

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