By Nicki Seignot
Ask a small business owner for their thoughts on an employee taking maternity leave and they might say; “It’s a minefield. There’s so much to know in terms of legal entitlements, pay, holidays, flexible working etc. On a personal note, of course I’m delighted for her, but in terms of business impact and what we’ve got on over the next 12 months, it’s a nightmare . I’m losing a key member of my team and these aren’t skills I can replace overnight.”
Managing someone through maternity and return to work can be a testing time for any employer. In the context of an SME, where there is typically less resource than in larger organisations and roles tend to have broader responsibility, the prospect of operating without an experienced employee for up to a year can be a real concern. SME owners, more used to logistics, production, strategy and business development, rarely consider having to deal with this kind of challenge when starting out and the long term implications of taking on more employees as their company grows.
Latest figures show in 2016 there were 5.5 million private sector businesses in the UK, up 97,000 or 2% since 2015.* 5.3 million of these were classed as micro-businesses with up to nine employees, all of whom will be key to the efficient running of the organisation. Match this with ONS statistics of nearly 700,000 births a year in England and Wales and it becomes self-evident that managing an employee through maternity and return to work is a challenge most SMEs will face at some time.
Maternity leave is rightly afforded special protection in the workplace given the history of discrimination against pregnant employees, yet despite this many women continue to experience being let down by their employer. House of Commons figures show that 14% of the 340,000 women who take maternity leave each year find their jobs under threat when they are ready to resume work. Frequently returners seek a level of flexibility in terms of working arrangements, but find their employer resolutely inflexible. For many this flies in the face of having given so much to the business to date and their expectation that as an important member of the team with a detailed knowledge of the business they would be welcomed back with open arms. The net result is some 47,600 of returners end up leaving employers, finding themselves dismissed, held back, or simply give up and resign.
Notwithstanding the legal requirements, there are ethical and sound business reasons to manage maternity returns well. The surprise is that despite having invested so much in someone prior to this point, many employers simply fail to support returners effectively. Becoming a parent is life-changing and it is a critical time for offering support to new parents as they balance their lives between home and work for the first time. Supportive conversations, mentoring by another working parent can play a key role and good practice is all about tapping into the internal resource within the organisation itself. A little understanding and forethought can avoid problems later and indeed provide a boost to productivity that will be repaid hundredfold over the following years.
- How prepared are we as a small business?
- How reliant are we on one or two key people?
- What could we do to mitigate future skills gaps?
- Where is our contingency?
- What’s possible in terms of working creatively / flexibly in order to retain essential talent and business knowledge?
- How do we demonstrate we care enough about our people for them to return?
With a degree of planning and preparation, maternity can also offer an opportunity: for others to step up temporarily and to work differently for a period of time, not to mention the opportunity that comes with the returning employee. If we’re open to seeing it, a returner can offer different perspectives, they are likely to be more focused, to do more in less time and to bring fresh ideas and thinking having been out of the business for a while.
At the heart of this is a belief in the value of caring for people and in doing so retaining much needed expertise and knowledge. Generally the more supportive the employer, the greater the likelihood of talented people coming back engaged and committed to the business for the long term.
Nicki Seignot is the lead consultant and founder of The Parent Mentor, a specialist consultancy that works with employers and organisations to offer support for employees as they combine work and parenting for the first time.
* (Number 06152, 23 November 2016, briefing paper House of Commons library)
 Number 06152, 23 November 2016, briefing paper House of Commons library