The 2014 Managing Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave Forum, organised by Symposium Events and held last week in Canary Wharf (London), provided insights to understand the latest changes in employment law and recommended a range of strategies to tackle the current challenges.

The new parental leave legislation, which is bound to take effect in 2015, will essentially allow the parents of the new baby who meet the eligibility criteria to decide how many leaves each will take, and whether to take time off in turns or together.

Behind the reform there is the need of changing the current system of maternity, which Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg defined “antiquated” and “out-of-step with the wishes of modern parents”. The new regime objectives are: to encourage fathers and partners to play a greater caring role; to give employees greater flexibility in how to balance work and family commitments; to helps workers retain a strong link with the labour market.

The presentations and the case studies discussed at the conference converged on the following issues:

The need to recognise the “one size does not fit all” principle in parental leave legislation, which is complex and requires acknowledgement of diversity in the approaches.

A strong call for employers to develop sound and consistent parental leave policies. Due to the complexity mentioned above, some organisations prefer to have policies which are rather generic and do not go too much in detail. Whichever approach employers decide to take, the implementation of policies must be consistent and take precedents into account. Firms are also advised to plan flexible working arrangements not only in consideration of the statutory requirements, but also of good practice, which can be done using the guidance provided by ACAS.

New legislation must reduce gender gap and inequality. Access to employment for working mothers has arguably been facilitated by earlier family-friendly regulations. Recent figures show that 68% of recent mothers are currently being employed. However, old legislation has also supported the view of women as primary carers and failed to provide employees adequate flexibility. As a result, female employees who take time out to start a family usually have to deal with limited career progression and lower salaries. Giving both parents the option to share leaves and increasing flexibility in the arrangements are seen as means to reduce the gap and help women break through the glass ceiling.

It is critical to recognise that engaging and retaining parents adds value to a business. Employers should take into consideration that, according to recent estimates, 15 to 25% of women going on maternity leave do not return to work, and 25% of those who return to work leave the firm within 1 year. The Parental Leave Forum discussed some strategies that can help tackle this challenge. Instances include providing employees coaching programmes and childcare guidance; encouraging parents to stay in touch with their employers during the leave; and supporting employees with any anxiety they might experience when back at work.

Article by HRreview journalist Sergio Russo