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.

Straw and Rifkind show the problem of managing staff with “second jobs”

There’s been much schadenfreude in the exposure of two former high ranking government ministers, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, touting themselves for business and offering to sell their “influence” to a fictitious Chinese company. (In the interests of political neutrality one is from the Conservatives, one from Labour).  It’s provoked a debate about whether MPs should be banned from holding second jobs.

MPs aren’t employees. But the same issue of whether an employee can hold a second job is one I am often asked. So what is the situation?

Firstly, you can’t impose a blanket ban on individuals doing work when they aren’t working for you. Individuals have a right to spend their time outside work in whatever way they wish, which includes earning money. However, you do have a right to ensure that they are not doing anything which could damage your business –so you can legitimately prevent them from working for a competitor, or other organisation which might want access to your commercial information (a supplier or customer for example). As with all these things, should matters be challenged by the employee, you’d need to show that there was some clear impact on your business.

You can also prevent an employee from doing other work if it would stop them from working for you. So if someone wants to do an evening job starting at 6 but isn’t due to finish their shift with you till 7, then you can of course also prevent them from doing this.

The third key area is Health and Safety, particularly (and ironically given how much some employers seem to hate them) via the Working Time Regulations. These lay down the rules about the maximum 48 hour working week, rest breaks and time between shifts. If a member of staff works 35 hours a week for you (9 to 5 Mon-Fri say) and then wants to do 20 hours a week in a bar (say a four hour shift Wednesday/Thursday/Friday/Saturday/Sunday) you could try to prevent them from doing so on the grounds that they are working 55 hour weeks possibly without sufficient rest between shifts. Again, if you can show a clear safety risk (they operate machinery for example) it’s easier to do this.

With the advent of flexible working, zero hours contracts (where all parties have pledged to outlaw exclusivity clauses that prevent people from working for someone else), increased numbers of part-time roles and the growing number of “in-work poor” mean that for many employers, their staff may well have more than one job. Managing such situations may become increasingly common.

Come on In, The Water’s Lovely!

Yesterday I attended the Social HR Conference run by the CIPD in Manchester. There were lots of great learning points but one thing that struck me repeatedly were the reasons put forward by (often frustrated) HR people as to why their companies wouldn’t embrace “social media”, as they are often the reasons some of my clients also state. So I thought I’d challenge a few.

“People will do stupid things on it and we’ll end up sacking them”

Yes, some employees do stupid things sometimes – they always have done and always will do. Some of them will do it on a social media forum. But if someone doing something daft on social media leads to a disciplinary problem, then, to quote Pets At Home HR Director Ryan Cheyne, you have a problem with an employee – not with social media.

“People will just waste time on it”

Some people waste time at work no matter what. They might take overlong fag or tea breaks, wander around telling jokes to colleagues or discussing last night’s Eastenders. Again, if someone isn’t achieving their work targets, tackle it as a performance problem like any other. But…

…the time you think they are wasting might be being spent finding out the answer to a problem quickly and cheaply, getting some useful ideas on good practice from their contacts, or even finding out some information or knowledge on a competitor or a new opportunity.

“It might be ok for professionals and techies, but we employ manual workers/truck drivers/cleaners”

And you think that your manual workers don’t have Smartphones or Facebook accounts? Even if they don’t use them in work it doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t have them. Some companies adopt technology earlier than others but in the end we all do. One interesting learning point for me yesterday was that there is a huge online community of people who discuss knitting and crochet, and (while I accept this is a total stereotype) you wouldn’t normally associate people with those hobbies with the cutting edge of technology

“People might get a bad impression of the company”

People have always moaned about their employer and things they don’t like. But if you’re perceived as a poor employer, word always gets round. Social media just gets it round faster. And with the onset of sites like Glassdoor, it’s going to happen whether you “forbid” it or not.

Look at Friends Reunited and Myspace – they were just passing fads

Individual sites may come and go (there are some suggestions that Facebook may soon fall out of favour, while the end of LinkedIn has been prophesied regularly) but the means of communicating via internet or mobile technology will be around for a long while.

What’s its ROI?

As Mervyn Dinnen pointed out at yesterday’s conference, this is the “killer” argument used by those who just don’t want to do something. After all, how many companies measure the ROI of talking (and listening) to their employees, making new business connections or of providing mobile phones?

For a small organisation, the benefits of using social media more seem overwhelming – a cheap and easy way to promote your business and services, a chance to get immediate customer and employee feedback and an opportunity to “punch above your weight” against bigger competitors. In the same way that we now expect a company to have a website and an email address, there’ll be an expectation from your employees and customers in the future that you’re in social in some way. Thinking it will go away or ignoring it is not the right strategy.

Fine Words Butter No Parsnips

Social media went crazy over “Harry Potter girl” (her words not mine) Emma Watson and her speech to the United Nations last week about Gender Inequality. Surprisingly for a speech promoting feminism, the majority of negative comments (aside from the hoax “nude photos” campaign) were from other female commentators critical she had watered down the message to make it palatable to men (perhaps the trolls who gave other women such as Carolyn Criado-Perez such grief thought Hermione might turn them into actual trolls).

One area which was suspiciously quiet about the speech however was HR. As a profession we can’t change the world, but we do have a significant influence over the world of work. And within the speech there were a lot of challenges that we should be happy to pick up.

So what can HR do? Here are just a few thoughts:

  1. Looking at your organisation’s workforce – are there certain jobs/areas that are heavily male or female dominated? And is there a wage/salary discrepancy between the two? If so, is there anything you can or should do to address them?
  2. What is your attitude to issues like shared parental leave or flexible working? Is it a grudging acceptance that “it’s the law so we’d better do it”, or do you positively promote it as being good for both employer and employee?
  3. What is the management style of your organisation? If it’s based on aggressive “command and control” with an emphasis on presenteeism and competition rather than collaboration and team work, then what are you doing to challenge and change it?
  4. Address mental health issues in the workplace. This can be as simple as including mental health in absence management briefings and training. And if you don’t feel fully clued up on mental health, then make it one of your own personal development targets
  5. Challenge inappropriate behaviours. While the nude calendar on the office wall has been generally consigned to history, there are still many workplaces where “banter” is used to exclude, belittle or isolate those who are “different”.

And do you know what? As I typed that list, I realised that all these are things I’d expect a competent and qualified HR professional to be doing as a matter of course in the organisation that they worked in. So why aren’t we all doing it already?

The Monstrous Regiment of (Childbearing Age) Women

A few weeks ago, the NZLEAD Twitter chat was about the role and position of women in the workforce. Some of the debate I found quite odd, since it seemed to be focussing on issues that I personally thought were almost dead and buried in the UK – whether men had a problem with women in the workforce, or if women were “debarred” from working in certain occupations. Sadly, it seems I’ve been viewing the world of work through somewhat rose tinted glasses.

Earlier this week, a report was published which attracted a good deal of press attention, suggesting among other things that 40% of UK employers would have reservations about employing a woman of “childbearing age” and that a third of managers would hire a man in their 20s/30s rather than a woman of similar age, due to fears about maternity leave.

Originally, I was going to write a blog about the dubious use of statistics – the research was commissioned by a firm of lawyers who specialise in employment and discrimination claims and who are no doubt suffering a loss of business currently – and it’s interesting that the data itself is not easily available (the source of all the media stories seems to be this press release, which doesn’t provide any evidence to substantiate the claims). And even accepting the data at face value, it’s quite easy to turn the headline into “60% of employers always aim for the best talent, while an overwhelming majority operate non-discriminatory recruitment practices” should you wish to spin the story a different way.

However, it’s not the data but some of the reaction to the news stories that made me re-think my own views. Commenting on the story, Employment Minister Jo Swinson and TUC Leader Frances O’Grady both described businesses who have this attitude to younger women as “dinosaurs”. As a political soundbite that’s probably ok (if a rather lazy and clichéd image), though personally I’d sooner find out why such a high percentage apparently still hold these views rather than attack them for it (I suspect that much of it is based on a misunderstanding of  employment rules, something I blogged about here).

But the reaction to Swinson’s comments – most notably here – were of such a vile and personal nature that it made me realise that perhaps I have too positive a view. How very dare she express an opinion, especially as a young woman who (shock horror) had a baby and took maternity leave from her ministerial post. Doesn’t she know that British business is collapsing all around her because women are taking maternity time off?

Clearly the debate hasn’t progressed as much as I thought or hoped.