Previous Article Next Article Parental leave – the way forwardOn 1 Oct 2000 in Personnel Today Helen Froud, director of corporate services at Worcestershire CountyCouncil, examines the challenges for personnel practitioners in implementingparental leaveThe 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 theirmembers consider that family-friendly policies are a major issue for thenation’s boardrooms. Issues surrounding working parents continue to hog theheadlines: last month, for example, the Department for Education and Employmentlaunched its good practice guide for improving work-life balance But where will this debate lead? The Parental Leave regulations introduced upto three months’ unpaid leave for new mothers and fathers, provided their babywas born after 15 December 1999. Adoptive parents are also eligible. Theregulations were published with a “fallback” or model scheme thatautomatically takes effect unless an organisation replaces it with a morecomprehensive version of its own. Insiders at the CBI indicate that themajority of firms have simply adopted the “fallback” scheme. Although the draft regulations were well-circulated in the UK among HRprofessionals, the final detail was published only a matter of weeks beforetheir implementation date last December. This has led a number of firms tocomplain that they had little time to consider the implications of the newrequirements and consult the workforce before they received requests for leavefrom staff. Fair implementation? The European Court is now being called upon to decide whether theeligibility date chosen by the Government was fair. The TUC has retained CherieBooth QC to argue that the December 1999 eligibility date is arbitrary, andthat the original directive date of 1996 is more relevant. “We had hopedthat the new European fast-track procedure would enable this to be speedilyresolved,” says Booth. “However, we have recently learned that ourcase was not referred in time to qualify for this new procedure.” Casescan take up to 18 months to resolve and it is now clear that we will not beable 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 whetherpaid leave would be provided for. Despite much campaigning on this issue, theGovernment has so far indicated that it has no intention to pay directly forleave: it is clearly for us as employers to decide if we can afford to pay. Arecent survey by the Local Government Employers Association showed that 76 percent of council employees already benefit from some paid leave – but themajority of these only have around two weeks’ pay from their employer, from atotal 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’sbeen in operation for a year’, says Andrew Powles, senior manager, employeerelations, at Nationwide. “We see parental leave as part of the wholework/life balance agenda.” The DfEE agrees with the Nationwide’s approach, and is reportedly keen tosee parental leave as part of an all-encompassing approach to work-lifebalance. It is fast becoming clear that a failure to link parental leave withbroader staff lifestyle benefits will become an ‘own goal’ for business. Asurvey published in the July edition of Management Today by CeridianPerformance Partners found that 55 per cent of managers believe childless staffresent family-friendly policies. Time for best practice The experience of US employers may be of use in helping us to establish bestpractice here in Britain. The US Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993 alsoprovided for 13 weeks’ unpaid parental leave, and employers found that after aslow start, requests for leave took off. But the requests that came in were notconfined 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 callsfrom staff concerned about eldercare and out-of-school care.” AT&T nowruns an integrated work-life service catering for family leave, access to helpfor the elderly and dependant relatives, and giving assistance in locating suitablechildcare facilities. On the edge of the law Thorny issues relating to eligibility for parental leave have already begunto emerge. In our experience, most of the hotspots arise where employees’ needsare neither straightforward nor conform to “traditional” views of howa family should be constituted. Only HR teams that have taken the time to thinkthem 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 thattheir parental leave policies are a success? First, think carefully about how your parental leave policy links toemployment diversity policies. If your company’s equal opportunities policymakes explicit reference to equal treatment for same-sex partners, it may provehard 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 maywell 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 toresolve the questions early, to avoid doubt if questioned. More common is thesituation where both parents are in close proximity to one another at work. Howwill you cope with simultaneous requests for parental leave from both partners?Broader implications As well as focusing our minds as employers, the Parental Leave regulationshave also helped to unearth a much broader debate in the public mind about therelative roles of women and men in the workplace. The Industrial Society has captured the mood of the moment with its FuturesProvocation report, published in August, called Mothers versus Men: Why WomenLose at Work. The author, Richard Reeves, argues that so long as women stillbear the brunt of responsibility for childcare, they will continue to lose outin the workplace. “When the phrases ‘career man’ or ‘working father’ haveceased to sound silly… women will have a shot at equal status in the officeand boardroom. Not before,” says Reeves. So what is the parental leave debate really about – gender, familyrelationships or work-life balance? Whatever the original intention of the 1996directive, few of us as HR professionals can afford to ignore the ripples thatare now running through the employment marketplace. There is little doubt thatonce 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 thelongevity of our organisations, HR professionals must take on the role ofcorporate seers and try to predict which employment policies will best deliverthem 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 Bristolhas shown that staff preferences for flexible working and work/life balanceoften differ from managers’ assumptions.– Think carefully and inventively when implementing parental leave. Don’tassume that parenting problems end when maternity leave is over. Work in the UShas shown that the majority of work-life balance problems begin when childrenreach school age, in other words, when parents are no longer eligible forleave.– Ensure that employment policies deliver the kind of behaviour yourorganisation requires. It is no good promoting a range of family-friendlypolicies if your organisation – and its senior managers – display antipathy towork-life balance.– Ensure that employment policies in your organisation reflect both yourcurrent workforce and the kind of workforce you would like to attract. Young,fast-moving Internet start-ups may have little use for parental leave policiesnow, but if they survive, they may need them in five years’ time.– Finally have a long-term strategy to deal with the implications of ajudgement from Europe changing the eligibility dates for parental leave.Consider whether a voluntary change now would save heartache and employeerelations later. Comments are closed. Related posts:No related photos.