Small businesses are being urged to prepare for the new shared parental leave regulations before it's too late and to see the changes as a benefit to all rather than a hindrance, after more than a third (36 per cent) admit they are not ready to implement the scheme, which becomes law next month.
New research has revealed that 44 per cent of small and medium businesses are worried about how the regulations will impact on their business, and nearly one in five are simply “putting off” preparing for it until an employee asks for it.
But lawyers have warned that businesses which don’t prepare properly risk legal claims if they treat male or female staff unfairly.
The survey of key decision-makers at 500 British SMEs by employment law specialists Slater and Gordon found that a quarter of businesses expect none of their staff will apply to take part in the scheme.
The new regulations, which come into force on April 5, place a duty on employers to ensure that eligible staff can take leave and are not penalised for doing so. The amount of leave is calculated using the mother’s 52-week entitlement. If the mother reduces the amount of time she wants to take away from the workplace her partner may opt in to share the remainder.
Slater and Gordon Senior Employment Lawyer Jim Lister said the change in the law needed employers to plan ahead and support the new scheme if it is to be a benefit, rather than a burden, to businesses overall.
“Businesses are not yet convinced that shared parental leave is a positive. But these changes are coming, and they present an opportunity for progressive businesses to integrate shared parental leave into the wider benefits package. I am confident that if the change is welcomed at the top of organisations and appropriate processes are put in place straight away, businesses can differentiate themselves positively in the eyes of their employees.
“Businesses should see this is as a scheme enabling women employees to return to work and I believe that before long it will be commonplace. In years to come I think businesses will simply accept that both men and women could take periods away from the office after the birth of their children.
“But it is vital that employers get behind the plans and make sure they know exactly how they should be handling maternity and paternity rules."
Despite 42 per cent of SMEs admitting they would be surprised if any male staff applied to take up the scheme, one in five said they had already had a leave request by an employee.
Just 14 per cent of small and medium businesses said they “fully supported” the new regulations as a positive change for business.
One in four believed the old scheme did hold women back by giving men an advantage.
But a quarter said they were concerned the scheme would create problems for businesses and have little lasting effect on creating a level playing field for women.
The biggest concern for employers was that it would lead to increased pressure on their existing workforce and half said they were concerned about the cost and time involved in hiring staff to cover those who take leave.
Other top concerns for businesses were that staff without children would be resentful of those taking up shared parental leave (42 per cent), absent staff would seriously jeopardise the business (36 per cent) and staff morale would be seriously compromised (28 per cent).
Jim Lister said: "A lot of the concerns here would be alleviated if businesses put processes in place and issue guidance to staff as early as possible.
“Small businesses should get advice now to make sure they do not create a culture where men may feel nervous to take up the leave.
“Bosses have a very important role to play in promoting and normalising shared parental leave. If they do that successfully then they will see a happier, motivated and more equal workforce and that can only be good for business.”
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