How to stay in touch with employees on maternity leave
Author: Katie Wood
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- Be aware that the maternity legislation provides that "reasonable contact" during maternity leave is permitted.
- Take into account that what is "reasonable" contact during maternity leave will vary according to the wishes of the individual employee, her position and the type of work that she does.
- Note that, regardless of her seniority or type of work, no employee is obliged to maintain contact with you during her maternity leave.
- Agree the level of contact during maternity leave, the types of issues that might be discussed, the means of contact and who will initiate it at a pre-maternity-leave interview.
- Remember that an employee is under no obligation to maintain contact during her maternity leave at the level discussed if she does not wish, or is unable, to do so.
- Avoid less favourable treatment of employees on maternity leave by offering the same opportunities for training, career development and promotion that other members of staff receive.
- Take care that contact during maternity leave does not lead to an employee feeling under pressure to return to work early or to confirm if she will be returning.
- Contact an employee on maternity leave during a redundancy or reorganisation exercise, or if there are any changes to her job.
- Remember that, in a redundancy situation, an employee on maternity leave has the right to be offered any suitable alternative job that is available.
The Maternity and Parental Leave etc Regulations 1999 (SI 1999/3312) state that employers may make reasonable contact with employees on maternity leave. Reasonable contact will not bring the maternity leave to an end, and the employer can make contact regardless of whether or not the employee does any work during her leave under the separate arrangements for keeping-in-touch days.
What constitutes "reasonable" contact will vary according to the circumstances and the individual concerned. The amount of contact that an employee would like should be discussed and agreed at a pre-maternity-leave interview. Some employees may wish to stay in close contact and will not mind frequent communication. They may wish to be kept up to date with all developments affecting their work. Others may not want frequent contact, or may not be able to keep up to date once they have a small baby to look after. The frequency and nature of the contact will depend on a number of factors, such as the type of work and the employee's position.
Care should be taken that contact is not forced, leading the employee to feel under pressure to stay in touch or to contact work on a regular basis. An employee should not have to come into work for any reason - for example, to collect her maternity pay - if she does not wish to.
A senior employee may wish to maintain close contact, but should not be made to feel that she should still be working.
Contact can be made in any way that is suitable, including by telephone, letter or email, or through workplace visits.
Employers should consider keeping in touch with employees about changes at work, job vacancies, training, and other work or social events that they may wish to attend. Employees may wish to receive company newsletters, minutes of staff or team meetings, or information on particular projects or pieces of work. Reasonable contact can help an employee continue to feel part of the workplace and may make her return to work easier. However, it should not replace any return-to-work induction or training programme, and is separate from keeping-in-touch days.
Employers will find it helpful to discuss arrangements for staying in touch before the start of an employee's maternity leave. A pre-maternity-leave interview could include discussion about the means of contact, how often it will occur, and who will initiate it. It might also cover the reasons for making contact and the types of issues that might be discussed. Employers should also consider who will be responsible for maintaining contact. For example, this might be the employee's line manager or the HR department.
The contact arrangements could be recorded in writing. However, there should be flexibility over the arrangements: an employee who indicated a wish to maintain a high level of contact may, for example, find that she is unable to stay in touch for some time after the birth of her baby. An employee is not under any obligation to maintain contact at the level discussed if she does not wish, or is unable, to do so.
Employees on maternity leave must not be treated unfavourably or disadvantaged because of their absence from the workplace. For example, an employee on maternity leave should be offered the same opportunities as other staff for training, career development and promotion. If her annual appraisal is due before she goes on maternity leave, or during her maternity leave, the employer should make arrangements to conduct the appraisal before she goes on leave, or soon after her return to work.
Making contact to discuss returning to work
An employer is most likely to want to make contact with an employee to discuss and plan her return to work. Regulation 12A(4) of the Maternity and Parental Leave etc Regulations 1999 specifically states that "reasonable contact from time to time between an employee and her employer which either party is entitled to make during a maternity leave period (for example to discuss an employee's return to work) shall not bring that period to an end".
It would, therefore, be appropriate for an employer to contact an employee towards the end of her maternity leave to make arrangements for her return - to discuss any training needs, for example. However, employers should take care that contacting employees about their return to work does not make them feel under pressure to return early or to confirm whether or not they will be returning.
Employers do not have a statutory right to ask employees to confirm if they intend to return to work, and employees have no obligation to reply to such a question. There are numerous reasons why a woman might have difficulty confirming her return to work. She might have problems finding suitable childcare or settling her baby into it, or there might be uncertainty about whether or not her request for flexible work can be accommodated. In many cases it will be difficult for a woman to be sure that she is in a position to return to work until close to her return date when arrangements for childcare and flexible work have been finalised.
Employers are best advised to assume that employees will take the full leave to which they are entitled, and plan accordingly. All employees are entitled to 52 weeks' statutory maternity leave.
An employer must notify an employee of the date her maternity leave will end within 28 days of the day she gives notice of the date on which she intends to start her maternity leave. If the employee intends to return to work before the end of her maternity leave period, she must give at least eight weeks' notice of her date of return to allow her employer to make any necessary arrangements. However, if the employer failed to notify her of the date her leave would end, the employee is not required to give notice of an early return.
If an employee decides that she will not be returning to work she must resign in the normal manner, giving the notice period required by her contract. Her notice can run during her maternity leave. For example, an employee who must give a month's notice can resign a month before the end of her leave. She should be treated in the same way as any other employee who resigns. This might include an invitation to attend an exit interview, for example.
Redundancy or reorganisation during maternity leave
An employer must contact an employee on maternity leave in a redundancy situation or where there is a reorganisation or changes are being made to jobs. A woman on maternity leave continues to be employed and should be fully consulted at all stages of any redundancy or reorganisation process, and kept fully informed of developments, as though she were still at work.
A redundancy or reorganisation process is usually a worrying time for all employees. However, this is particularly so for any - such as those on maternity leave - who are not actually present in the workplace. Employers should maintain regular contact to ensure that employees on maternity leave are kept up to date throughout the process. For example, in a reorganisation, an employee on maternity leave should be given the opportunity to express her views on new jobs being created or existing jobs being reallocated. In a redundancy situation, an employee on maternity leave should be offered the opportunity to request voluntary redundancy if others are being offered this. She will need to be kept informed about the redundancy criteria, the selection process and any opportunities for redeployment.
Employers should follow their normal redundancy procedure for deciding who should be made redundant. However, if an employee is being made redundant during her ordinary or additional maternity leave, reg.10 of the Maternity and Parental Leave etc Regulations 1999 states that she must be offered any suitable alternative job that is available. It must be offered to her before it is offered to her colleagues. The woman is not expected to have to apply for the job or attend interviews or participate in a selection procedure - she must be offered the job.
If a suitable alternative job exists and a woman on maternity leave is not offered it, she may be able to claim unfair dismissal. This special protection is provided because women on maternity leave during a redundancy situation are in a more vulnerable position than other employees. They may be unable to apply for jobs or undergo a selection process if they have recently given birth, or may be disadvantaged after a long absence from work.
If her job is redundant and there is no suitable alternative vacancy, a woman on maternity leave is entitled to notice pay and, assuming she has two years' service, redundancy pay. She should be given information on her right to redundancy and/or notice pay and how it will be calculated. She should also be offered any help or advice that other employees are being offered regarding making job applications or looking for work.
During a reorganisation a woman on maternity leave should be fully informed about the proposals and kept up to date with developments. She should be consulted and given an opportunity to express her views about changes to jobs, and will want to know how any changes will affect the job to which she will be returning at the end of her maternity leave. Employers should be aware that it can be quite daunting for women to return to work after a long period if there have been substantial changes in the workplace.
Although employers must keep in touch with women on maternity leave who are affected by a redundancy or reorganisation situation, they should remain sensitive to the fact that they are on maternity leave and may recently have given birth.