Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour this week, former Labour minister Yvette Cooper MP revealed that she felt completely cut off from Whitehall during her second period of maternity leave and had to fight to be kept in the loop. Cooper’s experience is not uncommon, but nor is it a productive or a necessary one.
Sixty-seven per cent of those who work in the third sector are women, a higher percentage than in either the public or the private sectors. It is inevitable, then, that key employees will seek to exercise their rights to take statutory maternity leave, which could see them absent for up to 52 weeks – potentially longer if holidays and periods of parental leave are added.
But there really is no need for employees to feel alienated during this time, particularly given the measures in legislation to help maintain a relationship and to facilitate reasonable contact with employees on maternity leave.
Regulation 12A(4) of the Maternity and Parental Leave etc Regulations 1999 says that employers are entitled to maintain "reasonable contact" with their employees. "Reasonable contact" is not defined but is likely to involve a consideration of how receptive an employee is to being contacted during statutory maternity leave.
When notified of an employee’s intention to take statutory maternity leave, the employer should discuss with the employee what their expectations are. By doing this both parties can understand the boundaries and employees can invite sufficient contact to continue to feel engaged.
It is also good practice to invite employees to alter the contact they wish to receive after giving birth because their views about reasonable contact might change. As a note of caution, employers should at least keep absent employees informed about career development opportunities so that they don’t risk discrimination or other potential claims.
Regulation 12A(1) of the regulations provides for up to 10 "keeping in touch" days. These are days on which, by prior agreement, employees can attend and undertake work without bringing their maternity leave to an end. The parties are free to come to an arrangement about pay for these days, but whatever is paid should be offset against any statutory maternity pay. Keeping in touch days are a great way for employees to feel engaged and informed about key developments. They also allow employers to retain the benefit of key employees’ knowledge and input while they are absent.
Maternity rights, including reasonable contact and keeping in touch days, do not apply to volunteers. When dealing with volunteers, organisations are advised not to treat them like employees or they might become employees and acquire all the associated rights and benefits. It would be unlikely to cause any problems, however, to keep volunteers informed or to allow them to return to volunteering after they have given birth, provided organisations avoid making them subject to their maternity policies or use language such as "maternity leave", "reasonable contact" or "keeping in touch days". Certainly, paying for any work done – as an employer would for keeping in touch days – should be avoided.
Laurence O'Neill is an associate solicitor at Morrisons Solicitors