Making it an easy transition for employees returning from parental leave is vital in order to eliminate the endemic discrimination that exists in today’s workplaces.
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s landmark report for its ‘Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review’, released late July, found that one in two (49 per cent) mothers and over a quarter (27 per cent) of the fathers and partners surveyed reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work.
The review stated that little has changed in the 15 years since the commission’s first inquiry into this subject, and that Australian workplaces still overwhelmingly view working while pregnant as a privilege, not a right.
But Australian companies are increasingly acknowledging these difficulties and many have introduced policies to help parents make an easy transition in rejoining the workforce post-baby.
Flexibility is key
Telstra starts planning for the return to work of anyone who has been on long-term leave before the employee actually goes on leave. Before taking parental leave the employee will have a conversation with their manager about how their role will be covered while they’re away, and how often they’d like to be kept up to date with what’s going on in their role.
“If you just disappear and no conversation has taken place about handover and so on, then the people involved are setting themselves up for some degree of disconnection when the person returns because there have been no plans mapped out,” says Troy Roderick, head of diversity and inclusion at Telstra.
On their return, they discuss with their manager how they will fulfil their role while juggling their new responsibilities. The practice helps to ensure that neither the employee nor their supervisor is taken by surprise upon the return to work.
Telstra also recently bolstered its policy around that other key component of accommodating parents returning to the workforce – flexible working arrangements – by making all roles flexible from March this year.
“All Roles Flex means flexibility is the starting point for how we discuss and decide how work happens,” Roderick says of the policy. “We will always support requests for flexible work unless there’s a significant business impact from doing that.”
Prevalence of discrimination
While companies such as Telstra are helping parents back to work, the instances of parents facing discrimination upon rejoining their workplace is prevalent, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick conducted a survey as part of the review into discrimination in relation to pregnancy at work and return to work after parental leave. The results were damning: some of those surveyed suffered a change of work hours against their wishes, had their salary or bonus reduced, received a lower pay rise or bonus than peers, or found their position had been permanently filled.
Broderick says that, in some workplaces, there is a question over whether people who have caring responsibilities have the ability to be as committed to work or as serious about their careers as those who don’t.
“The bias or the perception is that your commitment has shifted and that you no longer view work as the most important thing, and that has negative repercussions in the workplace,” she says.
What are the options?
Broderick advises employers to stay in touch with the parent during the period of leave and plan for the transition back into the workforce before the first day back from leave.
“Human resources managers who want to retain the best talent will actually have processes to ensure that out of sight is not out of mind, that the return to work is well planned out, and that there’s someone to support that person returning, at least for an initial period,” she says.
She adds that a manager should also consider sitting down with the parent returning to work to talk through how they see their career progressing.
“Some may choose to take a bit more of a backseat than they’d originally intended,” says Broderick. “Others will want to progress in a way they did before they had the child.”
Flexible work arrangements also come into play. These are part of a modern workplace that wants to retain the best talent, says Broderick.
“In some areas it is about job redesign,” she says. “Squashing essentially a six-day-a-week job into three days doesn’t make for a good flexible work arrangement. It doesn’t work for the employee and it won’t work for the employer.”
What the law says
An employee who has been on parental leave is entitled to come back to the job they had before they went on leave, the Fair Work Act states.
If the job doesn’t exist anymore, the employer has to offer the employee a suitable, available job for which they are qualified and the nearest in pay and status to the original position.
If someone else is doing the employee’s tasks, this doesn’t mean the employee’s role doesn’t exist anymore.
Parents returning to work after taking parental leave have the right to request flexible working arrangements. Employers have to respond in writing within 21 days and can only refuse the request on reasonable business grounds.
More generally, the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and its state and territory equivalents say employers can’t discriminate on the basis of family responsibilities.