As additional parental leave kicks in, Jessica Twentyman finds out how small business directors are coping with family-friendly policies and whether they themselves are taking full leave
There must be something in the water at Fourth Day. In the five years since the public-relations company was established, its team of just five employees has produced five babies. At times, two members of staff have been off on maternity leave simultaneously.
Managing director Xanthe Vaughan Williams, herself a mother of four, takes it all in her stride—but that's not to say the absences have been easy. "It's taken a lot of planning," she says, "and we've managed to cover things using very competent freelancers, but that's meant incurring unforeseen costs, which can be tricky for a small business like ours."
Despite this, Vaughan Williams takes great pride in Fourth Day's family-friendly credentials. "We aim to allow people a decent amount of time off—and that's based on my own experiences." In a previous job, she went back to work seven weeks after giving birth to her third baby and felt it was much too early. "We also aim to offer a fair rate, which I feel, for a London-based company, needs to be above the statutory maternity pay rates."
But with the creeping extension of family-friendly laws (see box below), other companies are starting to question how generous they can afford to be. Maternity leave and adoption leave have been extended, and
additional paternity leave and pay (APL&P) is next. The uptake of APL&P, though, is not expected to be very high, and is only likely to be attractive to those families where the mother is the higher earner. The government predicts that between 10,000 and 22,000 fathers will take up the right to APL&P when it comes into force, probably in 2009 or 2010.
In fact, government figures suggest that one-third of new fathers in the UK do not take the paid leave to which they are entitled—and currently, only those who have worked for 26 weeks prior to the expected week of childbirth can do so, anyway.
That's not good enough for Peter Brooker, director of public affairs at credit reference agency Experian. All Experian employees, regardless of their length of service, can take one week's paid paternity leave on full salary-and those who choose to can extend this by a week, paid at the statutory paternity pay (SPP) rate. "The continued success of our business is dependent on our ability to maintain our reputation as an employer of choice," he says.
But of the 79 Experian employees who took paternity leave in the most recent fiscal year, 23 took two weeks, while 56 took one week—perhaps emphasising the fact that the current rate of SPP does not make two weeks' paternity leave a financially attractive option for many new dads.
There are also cultural factors. Kate Robertson, UK group chairman of advertising giant Euro RSCG, says: "In my experience, men are not very sympathetic with each other about paternity leave. Women are more supportive of each other on maternity issues."
Greig Holbrook of Oban Multilingual believes presenteeism culture is waning and sees paternity leave as a positive "in principle". But fathers in Oban's Danish office, he adds, are far more likely to take the full two weeks of paternity leave. "The UK is some way behind the Scandinavians but ahead of the US."
Tim Delahay, chief executive officer of print and mail specialist DST International Output, where around two-thirds of the 210-strong workforce is male, disagrees. "Of course you're going to get ribbing in any workplace," he says. "But paternity leave is an entitlement and we would never tolerate any suggestion that [a man's] responsibilities as a father should be less important than his responsibilities as an employee."
So far, five employees at DSTi Output have taken paternity leave this year, and all took the full two weeks at SPP rates. "Paternity is just one of the external factors that, as a business leader, you have to prepare for. Anyone who says otherwise is incredibly naïve and quite possibly a whinger to boot—my advice is accept it, accommodate it and move on."
And as for the prospect of paternity leave of six months? "We'll accommodate it if any requests come in-and so we should," he says.
But not everyone is so comfortable with the extension of parental rights. Many argue that, without more government assistance, the new regulations may put small businesses under intolerable strain.
In a joint letter sent to the Chancellor in May 2007, the Institute of Directors, Equal Opportunities Commission, British Chambers of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses wrote that small firms already "face a disproportionate cost burden in recruiting and training temporary cover for maternity leave". They argued that "micro employers", with fewer than 10 staff, should get extra financial assistance from the government to tackle that burden.
They estimate that employers lose up to £126m a year recruiting maternity cover, adding that the growing complexity of family-friendly legislation leaves smaller employers at a major disadvantage—and at risk of tribunal—thanks to their inexperience at dealing with these issues.
That's a view shared by David Whincup, head of the employment practice at law firm Hammonds. "The trouble is that legislators have fiddled with the concept of parental rights and the accompanying rules for years, rather than go back to a blank sheet and start again," he says. "So the whole situation has got very complicated for employers." His practice, he adds, "is fed by a steady stream of cases that involve employers who thought they were doing the right thing, only to find themselves accused of discrimination".
The situation leaves many employers feeling that, when new legislation is proposed, their interests are too often superseded by those of their staff. Dan May, operations director of Ramsac, a Surrey-based IT consultancy employing 26 people, is one of them. "If we're going to create a culture of innovation in the UK, we need to ensure that we maintain the interests of the employer as well," he says.
That's not to say that Ramsac isn't a family-friendly employer—on the contrary. "We do everything we can to support employees in their family commitments," he says, "and we have a busy social calendar that frequently includes their families. Flexible working, parental leave and time off for dependants are all excellent endeavours, but at the same time, as a firm that employs a team of very experienced, specialist employees, coping with time off is a real headache.
"In a smaller company, there simply isn't the scope to be able to cover long-term absences, and filling vacancies with temporary staff is often impossible when the posts are specialist."
But Sarah Jackson, CEO of Working Families, a charity that campaigns for parental rights in the workplace, argues that it is also vital to consider the employee's perspective, especially when 30,000 women a year still lose their jobs over maternity issues.
Around two-thirds of Working Families' annual caseload concerns maternity issues. But one-fifth of cases are flexible-working requests that have been turned down. "Many of these come from employees working for small companies that haven't thought through the benefits of flexible working," says Jackson. She describes that as "sheer madness" in an age where technology can make homeworking a pretty seamless experience for staff who need to be able to respond quickly to family commitments as they arise.
Working Families helps people to resubmit their rejected requests to their employers in more appealing terms—with an 80 per cent success rate.
"I am, in effect, running a small business myself," says Jackson, "so I understand the pressures involved. But being open to flexible working has allowed me to assemble and retain the very best team possible, on the kinds of wages that charities such as ours offer."
But, flexible working aside, what is needed is a major shift in thinking about family-friendly policies. When Bruce Lynn, a senior executive at Microsoft UK, first attended a meeting of Working Families, he was shocked to find himself one of the only men in the room.
Clearly, his employer has much to gain from the take-up of flexible working technologies—but as a father of two, Lynn's interest in the charity is primarily on a personal level. "It's called Working Families, not Working Mothers," he says. "There's a tendency to see this as a women's issue, but plenty of men want more involvement in their kids' lives. A lot of men feel a great deal of stress around this issue and the pressure it can put on their relationships with their partners."
And as long as family-friendliness is viewed as a women's issue, says Jackson, it will be seen as a problem, rather than a challenge for everyone to meet. "There's a lot happening out there in society—and it's time for the workplace to catch up," she says.
When Gillian Nissim gave birth to her first son, Joe, in 2002, she was eager to return to work, but quickly found—to her frustration—that her employer couldn't give her the flexibility that her new schedule required. A communications professional with previous experience working for Abbey and the Home Office, Nissim's obvious course was to go freelance. But opportunities were hard to identify. "There wasn't one place where all those opportunities were listed," she says. So when Nissim's second baby, Max, arrived in 2004, she invested her time in drawing up a business plan for a website that would provide just that. The result was workingmums.co.uk.
Employers who need skilled professionals on a part-time or temporary basis can post vacancies and connect to mothers who want flexibility in their working lives to maximise the time they spend with their children.
Employers using Working Mums include the bank HSBC, brewing giant Coors and broadcaster BSkyB, as well as a host of smaller organisations. They pay £89.95 to post a vacancy, and £19.95 to search Working Mums' database of 8,500 candidates.
In the last six months, the site has seen a 200 per cent increase in unique visitors. Application rates have increased seven-fold since the start of this year. "A lot of the mums have impressive careers spanning back 10 or 15 years, so they're looking for something challenging," says Nissim.
She and her team have themselves experienced the issues associated with a return to work: crises of confidence, career changes and combining parenthood with work they enjoy. One happy user is Emma Parlon, formerly a marketing consultant at AOL. Through the site, she found her current job working in PR and marketing for Return to Glory, which provides beauty treatments in homes and businesses.
"I've been able to combine permanent, part-time working with caring for my children, Sophie and William," she says. "Without Working Mums, I would have found it much harder to establish what opportunities were out there that would fit my lifestyle."