When the new Shared Parental Leave regulations (SPL) come into force, whilst take up may initially be slow, in principle there could be significant changes on the way for businesses.  We consider the potential risk areas for business and the steps which they can take to reduce the impact of the changes.

Whilst most businesses will be used to the idea that women in their teams will periodically take up to 12 months’ maternity leave to have children, the idea that men can now also take extended periods of leave to spend time with their young children is something which most employers will not yet have encountered (and may not yet be equipped to deal with). For a summary of the basic principles of SPL, please see our article here.

Plan Ahead

When budgeting for the year ahead, businesses should start to consider the possibility that men as well as women may take extended periods of leave during the year.  Consider what cover is available or needed if key deadlines or targets need to be reached during a particular period.  Clearly it won’t be possible to avoid having periods when a number of people in a team are on leave at the same time, but try to encourage openness where possible.  It has been our experience that employers frequently will not know that their employees are intending to take 2 weeks’ paternity leave until shortly before the baby arrives.  Whilst the SPL regulations require an employee to give 8 weeks’ notice of intention to take a period of SPL, it may help to plan ahead if employees are encouraged (though not under an obligation) to notify the HR team or their managers as early as possible if they are considering taking a period of SPL so that the business has as much time to plan as possible.  Clearly this won’t be possible in every case, but advance notice may help where it is given.

To pay or not to pay?

Businesses will need to decide very soon whether they will offer enhanced pay during periods of SPL.  This is likely to depend on a number of factors, including whether enhanced benefits are currently offered to women on maternity leave.  Consistency of approach between men and women on SPL will be key to avoid any discrimination claims. 

Where maternity leave is paid at an enhanced rate but SPL will not be, employers should also consider notifying employees of the fact that they will lose enhanced benefits if they choose to move from maternity leave to SPL, otherwise from an employee relations perspective this could be viewed very negatively.

Increased flexible working applications

It has been our experience that of the men who have taken the current entitlement to extended paternity leave (which can currently be taken at the end of the mother’s maternity leave), many have subsequently made flexible working applications to their employers so that they continue to spend time with their new babies.  For example, one man reduced his hours to 90%, taking every other Friday off work.  Another made a request to take every Wednesday afternoon off, spending Wednesday morning working from home.  If the new SPL entitlements gain traction, it is likely that there will be an increase in flexible working requests, particularly from men.  Employers need to be cautious to treat applications from men and women in a similar way, and to have a consistent approach.  Rejecting an application from a man which would have been accepted for a woman is likely to be sex discrimination.

Changing the culture

Most managers are now aware that they need to be cautious what they say to pregnant employees (though there are always exceptions!).  However, it is unlikely that the same can be said in relation to men who are proposing to take extended periods of time off work for SPL.  Employees taking a period of SPL have the right not to be detrimentally treated as a result of taking the leave.  Some training may be needed to try to ensure that managers don’t make comments such as ‘well, that’s going to make it very difficult for you to get your promotion this year’, or ‘we will have to take this into account in your pay review’.  There may be a culture shift which needs to happen but we expect to see a number of claims related to detriments suffered as a result of men taking periods of SPL.

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