Most employees swing between being elated at their news but worry that they are going to leave their colleagues with too much work when they are away. The earliest opportunity to talk to them about how you plan to deal with their absence will be welcomed.
Pregnant employees can often be side-lined, particularly when discussing plans for events which are due to take place when they are away on maternity leave. This is often not deliberate, but busy managers find themselves talking to those who are going to be there. However, in the minds of the pregnant employee, this is the start of a deliberate easing out. So make sure everyone is included in the discussions and warn all line managers of this danger.
Keeping in touch with employees on maternity leave
The best thing an employer can do is to sit down with an employee before they depart on maternity leave and agree, in writing, how much contact they will want whilst away. Employees on maternity leave are entitled to be kept up to date with what is happening at their place of work, but some might not want that. Some might want no contact, others will want a lot of contact – by agreeing it in advance it stops any misunderstandings.
Obviously, if unforeseen circumstances arise, such as possible redundancies affecting a woman on maternity leave then an employer will have no option but to contact their employee, even if they said they wanted no contact.
Promotions, pay-rises and bonuses
It is also very important for organisations to agree with a woman on maternity leave whether she wants to be contacted about jobs that come up which she might be interested in. If this is not agreed and a woman is deprived of the opportunity of applying for a promotion because she is on maternity leave then this is discrimination.
Often employers see pregnancy as an opportunity not to award a pay rise. Women on maternity leave are entitled to be considered for pay rises and certainly if the whole company is receiving a set pay rise then this must definitely be awarded to those on maternity leave. Even if it is not company-wide, not giving a woman on maternity leave a pay rise will always be attributed to the fact that she is absent and may well trigger a discrimination claim.
One area that employers consistently get wrong is bonuses. If a bonus is awarded for a period that a woman is away on maternity leave then the employer is entitled to prorate it for the time that a woman has not been there. If it is a bonus for past performance when the woman was working, it should be paid in full.
It is discrimination to select a woman for redundancy just because she is on maternity leave. However, assuming it is a genuine redundancy situation unrelated to pregnancy then women on maternity leave should be treated exactly the same as those who are not. They should be consulted and included within any pool of employees doing the same job as her, without any preferential treatment. If an employer does give her preferential treatment then they could run the risk of a discrimination claim by the men.
However, women made redundant on maternity leave have enhanced rights as they must be offered any suitable alternatives without a competitive interview.
One of the biggest mistakes employers can make is deciding that the maternity cover is doing a better job than the woman they are covering for. This manifests itself as ‘she has not been performing for years, we want her out when no capability process has been undertaken at all, or suggesting that it is ‘not reasonably practicable’ to her original role. Businesses and HR Managers must deal with poor performance at the time and if they try and deny a woman the right to return from maternity leave because her cover has been better then the best advice is get your cheque book out – it will be an expensive exercise.