Every year, about 350,000 working women get pregnant. Given that there about 10 million women in the workforce, that figure represents a drop in the proverbial ocean. According to the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), the figures equate to one pregnant worker every five years for businesses with fewer than 25 employees.
So why do employers get so twitchy about maternity rights? Partly because the law is so complex; but also – ironically – because so few women get pregnant.
The chances are that if an employer has dealt with a pregnancy at work, by the time they manage the next one, the law will have changed. And – even more likely – it will have become more difficult to understand.
Hardly surprising, then, that employers and line managers told a recent survey by Personnel Today and the EOC that they wanted help finding their way through the maternity maze.
And there’s no doubt that the current regulations present employers with a number of problems. In particular, employers complain that they do not know when a woman will return from maternity leave. They just have to assume she will come back when the leave ends.
They also report huge financial and practical difficulties in covering the woman’s absence. And they struggle with the costs of recruiting and training someone else, as well as covering the woman’s salary if she has to be suspended on health and safety grounds.
Ray Britton, HR director of Ashtead Plant Hire, says that not knowing when, or whether, a woman is going to return is a constant challenge for managers in terms of workforce planning.
“We recently had a case where a woman was due to come back from maternity leave but then became pregnant again. She was obviously entitled to more leave, but because we don’t allow staff to carry over holiday entitlement from one year to the next, she lost two weeks holiday.
That was unfortunate, but it was an exceptional case. In normal circumstances, our managers can explain those rules to women before they go off on leave so that they know to take their holiday in advance,” he says.
The uncertainty about a woman’s return date also has a knock-on effect on temporary staff brought in to cover for the period of absence. Britton admits that providing cover for what turned out to be a two-year period of leave was not easy.
“Most temps aren’t usually interested in a two-year contract – although we didn’t know at the outset that’s how long it would be – but once they’ve been with us for a while, they often look for more commitment. That puts us in a tricky situation as we can’t offer them the permanent position,” he says.
That’s why Lyn MacPherson, managing director of MacPherson Mystery Shopping & Research, decided that all her 29 staff should be trained to do another person’s job. That way, if someone went off sick or on maternity leave, the company would be able to cover the absence internally, without the hassle of hiring a temp.
Liliane Thackrey, group director of organisational development at New Charter Housing Trust Group, agrees that recruiting and training temporary cover can be a headache.
“We try to cover absences through secondments or acting up, but when that’s not appropriate we have to recruit someone. Given that we know roughly how many women go on leave in a year, we’re thinking of having a corporate pot of money to cover the costs,” she says.
But how do other staff – who are childless or whose children have grown up – respond to the rights of mothers-to-be?
“Most staff are really supportive of them,” says Gillian Tinson, HR manager at City Projects. “But there are times when resentment can build up, particularly if redundancies are being made. Other staff feel that pregnant women and those on leave get preferential treatment. That can be difficult to handle.”
And that resentment can feed through into other areas of perceived preferential treatment. Take the example of flexible working – parents with children under six now have a legal right to ask for a change in their hours to care for their child.
Thackrey says that the key is to try to be as flexible as possible with everyone.
“We will consider a request to work flexibly, whatever the reason, although obviously we’re required by law to look seriously at requests from parents,” she says.
“Sometimes managers may not be that keen but, on the whole, they can see the benefits because we’ve learnt that if we’re flexible with staff, then they’re usually prepared to reciprocate.”
Managing Pregnancy at Work
Personnel Today’s One-Stop Guide to Managing Pregnancy at Work provides a practical framework for best practice.
Supported by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), the guide provides everything HR needs to know to take a positive approach to managing pregnancy and improve return-to-work rates. To order your copy at a special introductory price call 01371 810433 or for more information visit www.personneltoday.com/resources