How to handle maternity leave as an employer

The news that an employee is pregnant can be a bit like a surprise visit from the in-laws: you might not be ecstatic about the idea but it's one of those times in life you just have to put a brave face on things.

Ellen Singer, a solicitor at Peninsula, says that preparation is vital. In particular, you shouldn’t wait until a member of staff becomes pregnant before putting policies in place. ‘You should make sure you have carried out a full risk assessment beforehand, so you can run through any potential health and safety issues as soon as a member of staff tells you they are pregnant,’ she advises. ‘A common mistake is to carry [the assessment] out after they inform you, which might be interpreted as unsupportive behaviour.’

Singer adds that it’s important to react in a positive way to the news. ‘Pregnancy can be a very emotional time, and there is a tendency on the part of employees to expect their bosses to be annoyed with them.

‘Reassure your member of staff that there will still be a position for them when they return and inform them of their rights. But continue to treat them as any other member of staff – you must remember that pregnancy is not a disability.’

Dad’s the word

Ensuring your policies are up to date has become even more urgent with new paternity leave laws on the horizon. Under the new regulations, due to come into force next year, a mother will be able to transfer the last three months of her paid maternity leave to the father, who can then take an additional three months’ unpaid leave.

However, we’re still some way off perfect equality. An expectant mother needs to give at least 15 weeks’ notice before taking time off, whereas a father-to-be can offer just eight weeks’ grace. For the employer, of course, that means that there’s less time to make contingency plans.

The temptation is to make it clear in advance that you would appreciate being given more notice. But you must tread carefully, says Singer. ‘You should make it understood that you are not insisting on anything beyond the legal requirement. If you don’t, you may be seen as not being supportive, which could cause legal problems.’

The threat of a tribunal is now very real with legislation so much in the employee’s favour, she adds.

Related: Maternity cover for your business

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Maternity Leave

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