5 Top Tips on Keeping The Employment Relationship Going During Maternity Leave
Discrimination on grounds of pregnancy and maternity is still something we see a lot of as Employment Law Advisors. Often, it isn’t a case of an employer simply wanting to dismiss someone because they have told them they are pregnant and will need to take maternity leave. The problems often arise at the point where the employee is looking to come back to work after a long period of absence, and there has been a lack of communication from the employer during that time.
Although employees going on maternity leave will be excited, they will also generally be apprehensive about leaving their job for an extended amount of time, so it’s perhaps no surprise that they will be sensitive to any changes they come back to which they weren’t expecting.
From an employer’s point of view, ensuring that the relationship on return from maternity leave is as strong as when it left will help to encourage employee loyalty and retain talented employees. It will also help to avoid potential claims of unfair dismissal, automatic unfair dismissal, and discrimination.
We have set out some top tips on keeping in touch during maternity and ensuring a smooth return to work below.
Talk about KIT days
Keeping In Touch (KIT) days allow an employee to come back into work for up to 10 days during maternity leave with breaking her right to leave and pay. These can be used for things like training, attending team meetings, or just to settle back in to work.Neither an employee or an employer can insist on KIT days being taken, it must be agreed between the two of you. However, they can be useful to keep that communication going and, if you can pro-actively offer them, might make your employee feel welcome to return.
Keep them in the loop
Employees on maternity leave should be kept up-to-date on any business changes in the same way they would if they were at work. A common issue crops up where restructures take place within a business, and employees on maternity leave are left out of the process. Whether it’s a change to a role, or a redundancy situation, the employee needs to be consulted with.
Employers are often concerned about entering into these types of processes with employees on maternity leave because they are worried about potential discrimination claims. Ironically, they then end up in a much worse position when the employee looks to return and the role they left is no longer there. Often, the decision is long made by then, and it’s impossible for the employee to have a proper input in the process.
It might be a difficult conversation, and you might have to adjust the process slightly to allow the employee to participate, but it is worth doing at the outset. Please do bear in mind that employee’s do have some protections in regard to their right to return to work, so we would advise speaking to your Employment Law Advisor if you are in this situation.
Similarly, you should also keep employees on maternity leave informed about any promotion or training opportunities, to ensure they don’t miss out as a result of their leave.
Keep them on your systems
It might seem obvious, but we have come across this on multiple occasions. Maybe it’s a miscommunication between departments, maybe you’ve moved systems during their absence and they’ve dropped off the radar, or maybe managers have taken the view that an employee on maternity leave wouldn’t want or need to access their emails. Employees who find their access has been blocked, or come back to find they are not on the signing-in system anymore, will feel as though the company considers them gone from the business. This is something to bear in mind when dealing with any IT decisions when someone is on maternity leave.
Invite them to social events
Don’t assume that an employee on maternity leave doesn’t want to attend work social events. This is a good way for them to keep connected with colleagues and feel part of the business. Not inviting employees on maternity leave often leads to the employee feeling isolated and unwelcome. You may also have seen a case in the news last year where a new mum was successful in her claim for maternity discrimination after not being invited to her works’ Christmas Party. It’s one that employees could easily be aware of and use in a case against you.
Ask them how they want to be communicated with
Bearing in mind all of the above, and the uncertainty from employers about what is a reasonable approach, the best thing to do is ask the employee how much communication they want and via what method, before they go on leave.
Ask what they want to be communicated about (e.g. training, new staff, KIT days, social events) and if they want to remain in communications such as company WhatsApp groups or email updates. Confirm that you will always contact them where there is a legal obligation to do so, such as if you need to consult about any business changes, but otherwise, keep in line with what you have agreed at the outset.
Keep a record of the conversation you have had about contact for your internal records, so that you can refer back to this if there is any dispute.
Effective communication is often the best way to avoid tricky situations and potential claims arising from maternity leave. Bearing this in mind throughout should avoid conflict and save time in dealing with tricky issues upon return, as well as ensuring that valued employees are comfortable coming back to work.
Author: Anna Nelson, Employment Law Advisor at Howarths