The Guardian newspaper featured an article earlier this week in response to a new maternity discrimination report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The EHRC estimated that 54,000 women are forced out of work every year after having a baby and as such, are discriminated against on the grounds of their sex. The Guardian article looked into the issues by featuring a range of anonymous stories which have been recorded by women who have faced such workplace discrimination whilst pregnant, on maternity leave or once they have returned to the workforce. They found many examples to choose from. The stories featured included a manager who was made redundant through a restructure in favour of her maternity cover (who ironically she had selected for the role), an employee whose pay and hours were reduced once the pregnancy had been announced and sudden performance management of a normally good performer once they had asked about IVF leave.
As a recent maternity returner, the article resonated with me not because of my own experiences (which have been much more positive) but because of the other working women I met and became friends with during my time away from work. These women were aged between 24 and 41 and were a mix of first and second time Mums. All held interesting and challenging jobs, some were in management posts and all but one planned to return to work full or part-time after having their baby. Like other Mums in our situation, we met at local antenatal classes (of which many partners attended) and kept in touch by e-mail or in person afterwards, to provide each other with support. Whilst the early days were filled with normal parental issues, mostly relating to sleep or the lack of, it became clear that many of these women had HR issues they were concerned about and which they solicited my advice about. Furthermore, only a couple of the group had access to and fully understood their HR policies or felt able to speak to anyone at work about their concerns.
One of the group decided to leave their job voluntarily to become a stay at home Mum, with no HR issues. However, the remainder of the group comprised of 1 full-time returner who had been harassed by a colleague prior to commencing maternity leave but had not wished to rock the boat or have the stress whilst pregnant of making a lengthy formal complaint, 3 part-time returners who had made flexible working requests (of which 1 had been granted, 1 had been partially granted and the other was still awaiting a response after months of discussion and was due to return to work that week) and 1 full-time returner who was selected for redundancy on her first day back to the office. In the latter case, this large well-known organisation had employed this person for a number of years and she had been a top performing sales manager prior to her maternity leave. Instead of consulting about the redundancy when she was on maternity (and risk offering her the available role over her colleague due to her maternity status), they waited until her first day of return to put her job at risk and entered a shambles of a process to ensure that she was not appointed in the newly restructured department and remaining sales role. The mess they made eventually resulted in a settlement agreement to avoid an employment tribunal. The employee concerned does not wish to be a stay at home Mum and is still looking for an alternative role.
So, what lessons do these examples provide for employers?
Firstly, it is important to have clear and up to date employment policies in place, especially in relation to maternity, adoption, flexible working, bullying and harassment and equal opportunties.
Secondly, it is critical to ensure that these policies work and are followed and understood not only by employees but also the managers responsible for managing the processes and queries which result.
Thirdly, keep in touch with your employees when they are pregnant, when they are on maternity leave and when they return to ensure that any issues are identified promptly and dealt with appropriately. In particular, ensure that flexible working requests are dealt with fairly and timeously and that you do not forget about these employees when you consider business updates, salary reviews or promotions.
Finally, if business activities or roles do need to be altered or downsizing is required, take proper advice and consider all the potential issues before you embark on consultation exercises with your employees, especially if any of them are pregnant or on leave. You can consult with these individuals but in terms of the law, you do need to consider their issues fairly and ensure that where suitable alternative roles exist, that they are offered to employees on maternity leave first.