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The pregnant (career) pause

In our line of work we deal with a broad range of opinions and workplace issues related to what is one the most basic human conditions.

Pregnancy.

It’s a subject which, when it comes to the workplace, really polarises people and surprisingly, it’s not always the gender split you might expect. Consider the following case study as an example:

Kate is a Marketing Manager who took 12 months maternity leave in 2011. Upon returning to work she applied for and was awarded a significant promotion, which gave her greater responsibility, more staff and higher pay. Two weeks after accepting the promotion, Kate announced she was four months pregnant and would be on maternity leave again in four months.

Some might say Kate is within her rights to make the most of her maternity entitlements and was awarded the role because she was the best
candidate – a fact that should not be diminished just because she is pregnant.

Others would suggest Kate is taking the you-know-what, has acted selfishly or has not been considerate of her employer or the staff members she is now responsible for.

Either way, it’s not for us to comment here. But there are plenty of working women around the country who face unacceptable workplace discrimination (and as we write this article our co-Head Guru Emily is a very rotund 40 weeks pregnant, so this is topical at HR Gurus HQ!).   The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that almost a quarter of women in paid work will lodge an official complaint about pregnancy harassment or discrimination issues. Yet, our predecessors fought long and hard to gain equal rights for women, and as a result, many women are lucky enough to enjoy the benefits of paid maternity leave, flexible working arrangements and other policies that protect their rights to be mothers and carers.

As HR advisors, it’s not for us to question the law – an entitlement is an entitlement. And, as business owners, we are lucky that Emily’s maternity leave can be flexible and will create opportunities for other staff within the business while she is away. But for many women, there is no such luxury.

Under the Fair Work Act, the primary care giver of the child is entitled to take up to 12 months leave from their role to take care of their child (provided they have been employed for 12 months prior to the leave). They are also entitled to request an extension of this for another 12 months, and/or request flexibility in their return to work arrangement – namely, part time hours. And, while we are looking at rights and entitlements, under the terms of the Paid Parental Leave Scheme, introduced by the Australian Government on 1 January 2011, new parents who are the primary carers of a child are entitled up to 18 weeks of leave paid at the National Minimum Wage (presently $570 p/w before tax).

This much is clear.

But when it comes time for the parent to return to work (and it’s usually the mother in this position), this is generally when most issues arise. Because many businesses can only see such a return to work as costly and inconvenient. But it is the law, not to mention, many people would say it is the right thing to do.

If you have an employee nearing the end of their 12 month parental leave period, here are some HR Gurus’ hot tips for you to take note before starting the conversation with your employee. We promise this will mean that you and your employee get the best outcome (and that you don’t get in trouble for not following your legal obligations):

  • Be open to accommodating any reasonable* request for flexible work arrangements – this is your legal obligation
  • Be proactive and open-minded when it comes to solutions
  • Be prepared to be flexible, try to come up with a way that creates an opportunity for both the business and the individual
  • Remember your employees are an investment, not a cost (see our previous blog on this)
  • Also remember one of our basic HR principles – you should always do your best to retain good people

* At this point we would like to make a special reference to the word ‘reasonable’, as it is one of the most difficult, sticky grey areas for employers to navigate. After all, what’s reasonable in one situation may not be reasonable in another. In our experience, the legality of being ‘reasonable’ in this particular situation means that employers must consider:  the job requirements, the type of arrangement requested, the duration of the term requested, the cost to the business, whether there are alternative, mutually-agreeing ways to accommodate the
employee and the detriment to the employee if you refuse them.

The basic principles are really about being fair and not holding it against someone that they took the time to be parent. And, done well, it makes good business sense.

What has been your experience of either being a pregnant woman in the workplace, or of managing your obligations as an employer? We would really love to hear from our community on this one! Post here on our Facebook page. 

Signing off…

Emily & Sarah

aka The HR Gurus

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