In September this year, Alice Thompson was awarded £185,000 by an employment tribunal. The tribunal ruled that Alice had suffered indirect sex discrimination when her employer refused to consider her flexible working request.
Alice had asked her employer, a small London estate agency, if she could work reduced hours following her maternity leave.
Although she had created a detailed proposal, and “would have been more than happy to hear a counter offer, what might work for them”, she was told that the company couldn’t afford for her to work part time.
Feeling that her request had been “shut down, every avenue, not listened to, not considered,” Alice felt that she had no option left but to resign.
Do employers have to offer reduced hours following maternity leave?
Currently, there is no automatic right for employees returning from maternity leave to work reduced or part-time hours, or even flexibly.
However, all employees with at least 26 weeks’ service have the right to ask for these changes to their work routine. Such requests can only be rejected after careful consideration, and “sound business reasons” for doing so.
(It is also worth noting that the government is currently proposing that employees can work flexibly from day one in a new job, scrapping the condition of 26 weeks’ service altogether).
It’s not just about leave and flexible working hours
Regardless of what the legislation says, it’s important to remember that becoming a parent is a permanent, life-changing event that comes with a wealth of surprises.
As such, every employee returning from maternity leave has been on a strange and deeply personal journey that differs greatly from parent to parent. After such an extensive period of time away from work, many employees may also be lacking in the confidence they seemed to have in abundance before they left.
Providing the right support is therefore key for any organisation that wants to retain talented employees. This is particularly important in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, in which employees are leaving their jobs at a much higher rate than before (some commentators have called this phenomenon ‘The Great Resignation’).
How employers can reduce working hours effectively
Firstly, your organisation should make it clear that maternity and parental leave are welcome pauses, rather than major disruptions. This helps to create an atmosphere of openness and support.
Going further, ensure that you communicate fully with employees on maternity before, during, and towards the end of their leave (you should also encourage the employee to use all of their KIT days). That way, a request to work reduced hours on their return will come as less of a surprise.
Once the request is received, take care to consider it thoroughly. If you honestly can’t reduce the employee’s hours in the way they have proposed, which alternatives could you put forward instead?
Depending on the circumstances, a phased return, during which working time is gradually increased up to the employee’s usual hours, could be a potential solution.
We at Beyond EAP offer guided, bespoke coaching programmes for every stage of the parental journey, complete with a set of informative resources to download.