Employers need to get serious about creating flexible working environments and supporting individuals to access their parental leave schemes without judgment or discrimination, or risk losing their top talent.
A recent survey of more than 400 working mothers showed more than half said they have been discriminated against simply because they have children to care for, the Australian Financial Review reported.
It is the role of HR departments to ensure policies and procedures actually pervade company culture and the psyche of management and key leaders, says Dr Alannah Rafferty, Associate Professor at UNSW Business School’s School of Management.
“Any time managers/leaders in an organisation don’t actually follow-through on the HR practices and procedures that have been established in an organisation it is damaging to morale in the company,” Rafferty told HC Online
She says management and leaders who do not follow through on existing policies and procedures can be causing irreversible damage to company culture.
“This signals that management/leaders can’t be trusted… and is a big problem if we are going to establish a sense of psychological safety in a workplace,” Rafferty says.
“A second major issue is that it is also a big problem for organisational culture because it undermines people’s sense that leaders and credible and trustworthy, which is likely to lead to a negative organisational culture.”
Australian Human Resources Institute national president Peter Wilson said company culture and management psyche has a major impact on creating supportive environments for working parents.
While larger organizations offered better working arrangements for working mothers, many medium to large size businesses dislike flexible working arrangements, Wilson told AFR.
"A lot comes down to the attitude of managers, and many don't want people working away from the office. However, companies are good at camouflaging this. They're aware it's politically incorrect to discriminate and it's against the law," he says.
However, companies are likely to lose some of their best talent if this issue is not tackled head-on, says Rafferty.
“There is no doubt that a lack of consideration for working parents is a big problem for business today,” Rafferty told HC Online.
“It reduces the talent pool for key positions, it reduces the diversity of opinions and skills in the workplace, and it produces negative workplace cultures that alienate people,” she says.
Patricia Ryan, Principal at The Workplace Employment Lawyers told HC Online that an increasing number of professional women are not returning to their jobs because they can’t find the flexibility.
“Longer term this leads to a scarcity of women in senior positions and on boards which perpetuates the problem,” Ryan told HC Online.
Research commissioned by jobs website and training provider FlexCareers found one in four women resigned because their requests for flexible working hours were denied, while only 11 per cent reported having an ideal flexible work arrangement.
A separate report by Bain & Company showed that men who work flexibly feel unsupported and harshly judged, according to AFR.
And despite only taking short leave periods compared to their female colleagues, around 27 per cent of fathers and partners have reported experiencing discrimination relating to parental leave and return to work, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Bain & Company partner Melanie Sanders, one of the report's co-authors, said employers that genuinely promote flexible working environments need to ensure it works for men and women.
"If we ever aspire in Australia to have women feeling they have equal opportunity to participate in the workplace, and men feeling they have equal opportunity to participate fully as fathers and care givers, as we see in some of the Nordic countries, we have to correct this imbalance," Sanders told AFR.
Discrimination (against both men and women) on the basis of parental responsibility is unlawful and HR needs to be aware of the legal ramifications and advise the business accordingly, says Ryan.
In one case, a female solicitor was awarded $95,000 in damages after the Fair Work Commission
found that her firm had indirectly discriminated against her on the ground of sex.
In Hickie v Hunt & Hunt , Hickie was a solicitor and contract partner at the law firm Hunt & Hunt who alleged that upon her return from a period of maternity leave on a part time basis, she was left with a significantly smaller practice than before her maternity leave.
The firm’s group meeting arrangements excluded her and no accommodation was made for her part time working hours. Her partnership contract was subsequently not renewed.
The Fair Work Commission found that there had been indirect discrimination and that the effect of the firm’s decision was to impose on her a condition that to maintain her position in the firm it was necessary for her to work full time. The commission said the condition was likely to disadvantage women and was therefore discriminatory.
Ryan says it is the role of HR to champion best practice parental leave policies and assist reluctant managers to work through any perceived obstacles associated with flexible working arrangements.
“For example, a request for flexible work on parental responsibility grounds can only be refused on “reasonable business grounds.” HR needs to explain that to the business and assist managers to work through a positive business case for flexibility,” Ryan says.
Employee productivity may actually be higher on a work from home day, and this can easily be measured in many occupations, such as by comparing billable hours or the number of sales made.
Individual managers may also take the opportunity to up-skill in technologies such as video conferencing, or using Skype to ensure employees who are out of sight aren’t also out of mind or off the grid, Ryan says.
And when a senior member of staff goes on leave, good HR processes and forward planning make the transition easier for everyone, says Barry Lehrer, Founder and Director of DiffuzeHR.
“One of the biggest struggles for businesses is when senior staff members take an extended break, leaving a gaping hole in the business’ every-day running,” Lehrer told HC Online.
“Senior and longstanding staff are difficult to replace due to their intimate knowledge of the business and their expertise, making it an HR conundrum when they are legally entitled to take leave,” he says.
Lehrer says the best HR strategies for a business to implement when a senior member of staff goes on maternity leave include:
- Understand legal obligations. An employee with more than 12 months’ continuous service is entitled to up to 12 months’ unpaid maternity leave. Legally the job must still be left open for the senior staff member’s return, or, if the position no longer exists, they are entitled to an available position which is closest in status and pay.
- Secondments and temps are crucial. While you wouldn’t hire a temp to fill the senior’s position, you can certainly escalate an existing long-term employee to fill the senior role temporarily while a contractor or temp fills that employee’s role. When HR are assessing replacement staff, that staff member must be informed that they are being hired on a temporary basis until such time as the employee returns from parental leave.
- Streamline HR systems. This is probably one of the most important things to have in place before the senior staff member even goes on leave. By having all employment contracts, job descriptions, workplace policies and other legal documents in an easily-accessible and comprehensive HR system, the burden is off HR staff and it also makes it easier for the temp workers to understand their roles and also minimise their legal risk.
HR leaders need to ensure managers walk the talk and practically support flexibility at work, Rafferty says.
“If an organisation wants to encourage flexible work arrangements for working parents then they need to ensure that there truly is support for flexibility - that is, company values are not just a poster on a wall,” she says.
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The prevalence of discrimination against working parents is still a key issue in the Australian workplace, despite advancements in parental leave policies and flexible working arrangements, experts say.