The countdown has begun: employees expecting or adopting a baby/child on or after 5 April will be entitled to the new shared parental leave right, which for the first time gives parents genuine flexibility as to how they divide their caring responsibilities.
The government sees the new right as an essential tool in the fight to address the issues holding women back at work, in particular the notion that childcare is a female priority and that working mothers are less career focused.
Once in place, parents will be able to split up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of shared statutory parental pay in whichever way suits them best, which may mean taking time off together, or at separate times.
Unlike the current maternity and adoption leave rights (which will remain in force) employees will be able to intersperse periods of work and leave, and this will may have an impact on the businesses they work for.
So, what should employers be doing now to prepare?
Put a policy in place to prevent fraudulent claims
A policy should be put in place which clearly sets out the requirements that employees need to meet to qualify for leave and pay. Although the concept of shared leave is simple in theory, the eligibility and notification requirements are complex, with both parents needing to qualify and serve certain notices.
To dissuade employees from fraudulently claiming leave and pay, employers should make clear that false claims will be treated as a disciplinary offence.
Consider resourcing and cover arrangements
Employees are entitled to ask for up to three blocks of leave, either by giving the appropriate notice each time or by making a request for the blocks up front.
Many employers are concerned about the pressure these spread out periods of time off could place on resourcing. The law makes clear that such requests can be refused, but employers will need to ensure that such requests (and any refusals) are treated in a consistent manner to avoid giving rise to claims of discriminatory treatment by disappointed employees.
Consider enhancing statutory parental pay
This is the big question for many employers – should they encourage staff to take the leave by offering an enhancement on the statutory rate (currently £138 per week)? Some employers are embracing the reputational and recruitment advantage that can flow from such a step. For others, the cost of doing so is a very significant factor and may be prohibitive, especially if more men than anticipated take up the new right.
Give line managers training
Line managers will be more closely involved in the management of shared parental leave given the possibility of discontinuous requests. They need to understand the new right and be aware of the potential risk of claims if they treat employees less favourably for exercising their leave rights.
Have an open mind to change
We may well be on the cusp of cultural change at work and home. Employees genuinely want more from work than 12 hour days and set considerable store by work-life balance, which increasingly involves spending time with their children while they are very young.
Whether the introduction of the new right will achieve its aim of levelling the work playing field remains to be seen, but it seems likely that at the very least it will require both employers and employees alike to take a fresh look at the way in which work and family commitments can co-exist.