21st November 2013

Maternity rights – less legislation, more humanity please.

Maternity leave.Vanessa James, writing in People Management, examines a hardening of attitudes by small employers towards maternity rights. She highlights some of the dilemmas that such employers face over maternity leave and the right to return.

Unsurprisingly, since she is head of employment at a law firm, James hints at legislative and regulatory change to reduce employers’ negative feelings. Perhaps the law could make women more prescriptive about their plans for returning or even make it compulsory for them to meet with the employer after the baby is six months old, she suggests.

In my view many of the negative feelings arise from the whole prescriptive and legalistic process associated with maternity rights. Employers are cautious about what they dare ask employees, and with good reason. When they ask questions the words can be recorded but the tone and intention is not. Words uttered (or even emailed) with genuinely good intent, can easily be construed as discriminatory or as harassment if they are poorly phrased and later repeated in court. Although she failed (see Environment Agency v Donnelly), Donnelly attempted to show that a reasonable question asked by email was harassment. The employer was forced to defend itself with all the costs which that involved.

Employers need to be able to relate to employees on a human level and not within a prescriptive regulatory and legislative framework. What will a six month meeting achieve if the woman does not want to be there in the first place?

Sorry, James, less legislation, more humanity, please.

Malcolm Martin – QCS Expert Human Resources Contributor

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

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