“Managing maternity leave is a challenge for all employers, but the prospect of a key team member being away for up to a year can be a particular concern for small businesses,” says consultant Cecily Lalloo of Aylesbury-based Embrace HR, which provides HR advice and support to SMEs.
As Lalloo explains, roles within small firms are often more diverse, with one person having many responsibilities, special knowledge and established customer and supplier relationships, which can make finding a suitable temporary replacement problematic.
“Owners need to be aware of the full range of employment rights that pregnant women, new mothers and new fathers have. There can be serious legal consequences if you get it wrong,” Lalloo warns.
If you lack knowledge about employment rights, Lalloo strongly recommends seeking tailored professional advice. “There are so many aspects – maternity leave and pay, flexible working requests, holiday entitlement, pension contributions, whether the employee keeps the mobile phone or company car, keeping in touch days, etc. There’s a lot of free information online, but many small business owners tell me they don’t have time to wade through it.”
Recruiting temporary cover inevitably involves additional cost and effort, and as Lalloo warns: “You don’t know if the employee will return after her maternity leave. More than one employee can be pregnant at the same time. All of these things can cause a small business owner concern when employees become pregnant, but effective management can minimise impact,” she stresses.
“Being supportive and having a flexible approach to employment can also ensure that talented, experienced and productive employees remain with your business after the birth of their child.”
Sue Tumelty is the founder and executive director of The HR Dept, which also provides HR support to SMEs via a nationwide network of 60 local offices. “The key to managing maternity is effective planning and good communication throughout,” she says. “Things don’t always go to plan, of course – things can change after the child is born.”
Tumelty advises starting to plan as soon as your staff member tells you she is pregnant. “Otherwise, before you know it they’re holding a baby shower and you still haven’t found cover. Talk to your employee and make sure important information about their role is written down for handover. If there can be a day or two overlap between them going on leave and their replacement starting, all the better.”
Statutory maternity leave
All pregnant employees are entitled to paid time-off for antenatal care and eligible employees can take up to 52 weeks’ statutory maternity leave (26 weeks’ ordinary maternity leave and 26 weeks’ additional maternity leave), which can begin 11 weeks before the expected week of the birth. Mothers don’t have to take 52 weeks’ leave, but they must take at least two (or four if they work in a factory).
Eligible employees can claim up to 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay (90% of their average weekly earnings before tax for the first six weeks, then 33 weeks at £138.18 per week or 90% of their average weekly earnings, whichever is lower).
Some employers offer more generous leave and pay. Employers pay SMP to the employee, and businesses whose total annual National Insurance contributions are less than £45,000 can claim all of it back plus 3%. This is deducted from tax payable to HM Revenue & Customs.
Recruitment and induction
Tumelty says the same rules and good practice apply when recruiting temporary replacements (“having a clear job description and person specification will help when considering applicants”), and you should aim to integrate the new person quickly and efficiently, providing guidance, support and training where necessary.
What about the employee on maternity leave? “Staying in touch with them is extremely important,” she stresses. “There are 10 statutory KIT [keeping in touch] days, which are a great way to make an employee still feel part of your business.
“The employee is paid for coming in, without it affecting their SMP. KIT days can be used for training, actual work or even business social events. After many months at home with their baby some mums lose confidence and KIT days are a great way of easing their journey back to work.”
Tumelty recommends phased returns at the end of maternity leave. “One or two days at first, then increased gradually. Don’t expect a returning employee to hit the ground running from day one. There will have been significant changes for them and possibly your business since they’ve been away.”
Tumelty sounds a final word of caution: “Occasionally, a client will tell us they prefer the replacement and wonder what they can do about it,” she reveals. “But if they dismiss the staff member on maternity leave, they risk being taken to an employment tribunal – and they will lose. Employers must be very careful, because pregnant employees are protected by discrimination law, quite rightly so.”
So, where do small firms commonly go wrong when it comes to managing maternity? “Some delay unnecessarily, rather than starting to plan and act as soon as they’re told about the pregnancy,” Lalloo replies. “This can mean you end up recruiting the wrong person, meaning you’ll have to repeat the process, which wastes time and money.”
If you expect other staff members to take on additional responsibility, Lalloo recommends including them in decisions, otherwise they can feel resentment at the additional tasks they’ve just been handed. “I also advise creating a checklist of key tasks and a timetable so that the process is smooth as possible. Don’t leave things until it’s too late. Don’t forget – babies can arrive earlier than expected,” she adds.
Republished from The Guardian
Tuesday 17 June 2014 07.00 BST
Photograph: Hugh Threlfall / Alamy