Shared Parental Leave – Don’t Make a Drama out of a Non-Crisis

It seems that everyone in the HR and Employment Law world in the UK is getting into a bit of a tizz about Shared Parental Leave, which comes into force after Easter. “Does anyone understand Shared Parental Leave?” asked a CIPD blog recently, while employment lawyers are busy falling over themselves to offer seminars on the subject, so that employers can avoid “the baby trap” as one described it. Anyone would think that the entire structure of British industry was about to collapse because some fathers may want to take some time off with their newborns.

The concept of Shared Parental Leave is so simple that Employment Minister Jo Swinson could describe it in a tweet “It’s maternity leave shared between two people”. It is also true to say that the regulations themselves are complicated, partially because they use introduce clumsy new phrases like “continuous leave” and “discontinuous leave” and partially because they attempt to cover every single possible scenario. If followed to the letter, they also introduce some overly formal and bureaucratic procedures.

Confusing and bureaucratic regulations are nothing new in HR and employment law. We work within them all the time – and many organisations, especially smaller ones, bypass the letter of the law to get to solutions that work for both the employer and the individual employee (a fact the government recognised when it got rid of most of the bureaucratic rules around Flexible Working requests).

So why the fuss about this one? Setting aside the cynical view that employment lawyers make money from running seminars on new legislation, the resistance comes from the fact that too many people (including a lot in HR) don’t want to change or recognise the fact that the world of work is changing. Many employers are perfectly happy to take the benefits to them of flexibility (zero hour contracts, contracting services to the self-employed, a tacit acceptance of the fact that employees will work late unpaid and continue to respond to emails in the evening) but aren’t willing to accept the same when staff would like it. Couple this with the “HR says No” attitude still too prevalent among many in the profession and the thought of Shared Parental Leave becomes a doomsday scenario.

I’m not naïve, and I’m sure there will be some teething problems with Shared Parental Leave. But – as with every HR problem – constructive dialogue between the parties will usually sort out the situation, while a blind adherence to procedures and process won’t. It also seems likely that demand for Shared Parental Leave will be small at first, giving people a chance to get used to the new system.

One final thought. Around 20 years ago, the Disability Discrimination Act came into force. Then there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about all the changes that companies would “have” to make and how it would force them to take disabled people they didn’t want to really employ. The high heavens didn’t fall then, and I don’t expect they will do now.

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