CAN YOU BE MADE REDUNDANT WHEN YOU ARE ON MATERNITY LEAVE?
By Sarah Haslewood, Corporate to Kids
In 2017, the Women and Equalities Committee reported that as many as 54,000 women lose their job every year due to maternity or pregnancy.
One in nine women said that when they returned to work after having a baby, they were forced out of their job because they were treated badly, or they were made redundant or fired.
It may seem absurd that such treatment of women is occurring in the twenty-first century, but the statistics cannot be ignored.
It, therefore, appears long overdue that new proposals have been outlined in the UK giving increased protection to women returning from maternity leave.
What does this mean, and will it make a difference to those returning from maternity leave?
My experience in HR
As someone who worked in corporate HR in London for over 13 years, I have been involved in numerous maternity and paternity leave discussions and redundancies involving women on maternity leave.
It’s interesting for me to follow this consultation to see whether changes are made and if so, how impactful these changes will be.
It begs the question, why shouldn’t women receive protection during their return from maternity leave?
Perhaps it’s even sensible to ask, why this is only being considered now instead of years ago?
Current protection in the UK
Pregnant employees are protected by law under the Equality Act 2010 and must not be discriminated against on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity from the time they become pregnant until the end of the maternity leave.
This is the ‘protected period.’
Currently, if an employee is on maternity leave and a redundancy situation arises, she should be consulted in line with all those other employees who are also affected.
There should be no different treatment as quite simply the maternity leave absence is not an excuse to avoid consultation or fail to contact the affected employee.
A fair procedure should be followed regardless of maternity leave. Selection criteria should be non-discriminatory and objective and pregnancy-related, or maternity sickness should not be included as part of the selection criteria.
Regulation 10 of the Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations (1999) allows for employees on maternity leave the right to be offered a suitable alternative job before any other employee without the need to apply or attend interviews. Otherwise, it could be a case of unfair dismissal.
Once the employee is back from maternity leave this protection no longer applies.
The key point being that currently, women in the UK can be made redundant when they are pregnant or on maternity leave, but they cannot be made redundant because of that.
Employment tribunal claims for pregnancy and maternity discrimination can be brought irrespective of an employee’s length of service and compensation is uncapped.
What happens in reality?
The Equality Act 2010 includes gender discrimination and pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
Discrimination in the workplace is illegal, but we all know, and the tribunal statistics prove, that doesn’t prevent it from happening.
I’ve been involved in many bullying and harassment discussions and grievances and have witnessed genuine bullying in the workplace.
Some has been from managers who made life difficult for employees they don’t like or support, but who have cleverly trodden the fine line between bullying and discrimination and playing along with the legal guidelines.
A very behind the scenes form of discrimination.
Likewise, I’ve seen managers who have openly bullied others and have been subject to tribunal proceedings.
These have not necessarily been related to pregnant women or those returning from maternity leave, but for a variety of reasons.
Regardless of the laws in place for protection against discrimination, it does exist whether under the radar or explicitly and if the law is changed to extend maternity leave protection, this may make a difference to those affected.
What is the proposal?
In short, the Government’s consultation by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is seeking views on extending redundancy protection for pregnant women and new parents.
There is also a focus on maternity discrimination, and the consultation will run until 5 April 2019.
The consultation recommends that the current protection under the Maternity and Paternity Leave etc. Regulations 1999 cover an extended period.
Currently, maternity and paternity leave protection apply only to the period of leave instead of covering the period after the return to work.
The consultation suggests that the individuals concerned should be protected for six months after their return to work.
It is no straightforward discussion because other periods of leave, such as Adoption and Shared Parental Leave can surely not be overlooked in this extension.
Why is there a consultation?
This is not a simplistic proposal. The consultation requires feedback on several factors tied up in the proposal.
There needs to be consideration about whether this legal protection should be extended to other groups of workers and how the return to work protection would most effectively work.
The consultation, in my option, is vital to gain insight and comments from others including businesses and employees before it can be activated.
Benefits from an HR perspective
During pregnancy at work, there are the obvious health and safety and HR guidelines for employers to follow.
Working in HR, I often had very little contact with the employees on maternity leave because unless they wanted to speak to me, I wanted to leave them in peace.
They were kept informed of business changes, social events, everything that all employees would receive communication about.
It can be the return to work where life is the most different and potentially difficult.
When women return from maternity leave, they are not only adapting to being back in the workplace after a break but being back in the workplace after a break WITH a baby.
It’s the double-edged return, complete with the added complexities of breastfeeding and milk expressing at work, potential post-baby mental or physical health issues, business or team changes and possibly an adjustment to flexible working.
That’s without adapting to the added stress of organising and dropping off at childcare during work days, ongoing tiredness and the worry and guilt of not being with their child.
For all these reasons and more I think the extension of protection for those returning from maternity leave is just as vital during a woman’s return to work as it is during their pregnancy and maternity leave.
Benefits from a parent’s perspective
When I was working and pregnant, my working life didn’t really change. I worked from home on occasion, attended antenatal appointments, but other than that I would describe my job during pregnancy as ‘business as usual.’
When I returned to work after maternity leave, I started a new self-employed contract role, so the job, company and everything else was new.
Even so, I felt guilty leaving my children all day, even though I was part-time. I felt guilty because I had to disappear from work dead on time to pick them up.
I worried what would happen if they were ill and I had to take time off; I worried about being late because I had to drop them off before I began my commute to work.
I worried whether my colleagues took me seriously because I carried my phone with me at ALL times. I honestly worried about a million other things too, and the list goes on and on.
A culture shock
It was nothing sort of a culture shock. My husband works long hours in London and travels a lot, so all drop-off and pickups were entirely my responsibility.
I was exhausted, stressed, lacking in self-confidence with a myriad of other emotions all linked by change and self-doubt.
There was the conflict of relief at being back in an adult world combined with the fear that my children would suffer because they were in childcare all day without me.
The parental guilt was all-consuming.
What about self-confidence?
A survey of over one thousand women reported that only 18% felt confident and happy about returning to work.
Over a third of these women considered resigning because they felt so isolated and unsupported when they returned to work, and 90% were not offered any formal support on their return.
Surely, this suggests that returning to work after maternity leave is when women need the most support and perhaps an extended protection period against redundancy would help to increase their confidence, or at least make them feel more secure in their job.
Ways employers can help
Regardless of whether the proposal to extend protection for women returning from maternity leave is approved, there are ways in which employers can help.
I once worked at a company which ran a formal mentoring scheme. That’s not to say this must be rolled out everywhere, it can be time-consuming and requires commitment, but an informal scheme could be extremely beneficial.
Pairing a new, returning parent with an individual who has already been through a return to work after having children could be invaluable.
The relationship could involve informal meetings, coffees, and conversations to allow the person who has already been through it the opportunity to share their tips and stories.
It would also allow the new returner to have a person to talk to that isn’t their manager or a person from their team.
What returners can do
Perhaps it’s the women who return who need to speak up about what they need in the transition period, yet I think there is often a fear of this.
I know many women who have returned to work who were keen, desperate even, to prove to their bosses and team that nothing had changed, and they could return from maternity leave and hit the ground running.
Maybe though, a discussion with their manager on their return to work would be beneficial.
I think it’s important for women returning from maternity leave to have a debrief on how the business or team may have changed in their absence.
Many returners don’t even have a meeting with their manager on their return to work, yet how long would this take considering the benefit it could bring?
Other forms of Parental Leave
It’s unclear from the government’s proposal how other forms of parental leave will fare in the extended protection debate. The consultation is likely to help collect views from others about this to allow discussion about this should be handled.
Parental leave in the UK comes in the form of maternity and paternity leave, adoption leave, unpaid parental leave and shared parental leave.
Shared Parental Leave allows parents to share childcare in the first year after the birth or adoption.
This increased flexibility allows parents to be off work together or stagger the leave so that one of them is always there to care for their child in the first year.
This is a firm nod to sharing the maternity or adoption leave and care of the child instead of the woman automatically doing all the childcare and time off work.
I look forward to the outcome of the consultation and what the changes will be and how they will work.
Parental leave changes in the last decade have made significant changes to parents, their options and the inclusion of the father in taking time off during maternity or adoption leave.
However, the figures about maternity discrimination and the fear of returning to work are still alarming.
Businesses can do more to support women returning from maternity leave, but an extending period of protection after maternity leave might just be when women need it the most.
There is a huge change of being with your child all day to being at work.
Therefore, women may often need the most support from their employer during their return to work after maternity leave, rather than when they are pregnant or on maternity leave.
Only time will tell what the consultation will bring and whether changes will be made. I’ll be following it every step of the way.