Working parents are afforded certain rights under employment law and employers need to ensure they are aware of them. Not only can failure in this area result in costly discrimination claims, it can also mean the difference between a low or a high retention rate. Ben McCarthy, employment law writer at Croner-i, outlines points that employers can consider when aiming to be family-friendly employers.

Balancing outside commitments with a full-time job, such as caring for young children, can be difficult for employees to manage. There may be times when they struggle to facilitate childcare, or find themselves having to take time off work due to their child being ill. If employees are not provided appropriate support with these external commitments, the result can be a significantly negative impact upon their productivity and performance. Maintaining a level of understanding to the specific needs and requirements of a workforce is crucial to the development of a strong working relationship. It is therefore highly advisable that business-owners maintain awareness of potential options for their employees in these situations and be prepared to offer further support if need be. By taking this action, employers can aim to balance out the needs of their employees with the requirements of a working day.

Managing annual leave requests

Throughout the summer, employers will likely have seen increased requests for annual leave from parents in order to spend time with their children during the school holidays. This may be because they are struggling to find someone to help look after their young ones or they simply want to spend more time with them. Legally, it is down to the discretion of the employer when their employees take annual leave and they do not need to prioritise working parents over their colleagues. Furthermore, doing so could result in claims of favouritism, especially if a parent is given priority for annual leave requests during busy periods such as the summer or Christmas. In these situations, it is best to implement a “first come, first served” rule that allows all employees the chance to request annual leave for the same period. From here, employees with young families are then provided with as much notice as possible to get their leave booked in, with the expectation that they should get requests in soon or risk having them rejected.

Permitting flexible working

As an alternative to annual leave, employers may consider allowing their employees to change their hours in order to better balance commitments outside of work. Flexible working arrangements allow employees to work outside the traditional 9 to 5, Monday to Friday bracket by changing pre-agreed working hours. In this way, employees have more opportunity to plan their work life around the demands of their personal circumstances. Predominant examples include changing the start and finish times of an employee, compressing the working day or enabling the employee to work from home. Flexible working can be a useful way of mitigating holiday requests for the same dates, with employees able to use this increased level of flexibility for their outside commitments without needing to take any additional time away from work. It should be remembered that, while employers do not have to allow their staff to do this, all employees can apply for flexible working if they have worked continuously for the same employer for the last 26 weeks. All requests must be considered and sound business reasons provided for their refusal.

Understanding parental leave

If an employee has worked for a company for over a year, they are entitled to take a period of unpaid parental leave to look after a child under the age of 18, provided they give their employer 21 days’ notice. This can allow working parents to spend more time with their children during their holidays, accompany the child during a stay in hospital or arrange for alternative forms of child care arrangements while the employee is working. Generally, employees can take up to four weeks of parental leave per year in one-week blocks, although employers do have flexibility to adopt a parental leave policy that works for them and their business, provided the minimum requirements are met. For example, employees may be permitted to group four weeks together during the summer period in order to better facilitate childcare. That said, employers have to permit parental leave to be taken and can only postpone it by up to six months if they feel the business will be unduly disrupted.

Understanding time off for dependants

Employers may wonder if they need to permit their staff to take time off during situations where their children fall sick, are injured, or die. Legally, all employees reserve the right to take ”time off for dependants” from the first day of their employment. This provides them a “reasonable” amount of time away from work to deal with emergencies that involve a ”dependant”, which can include an unexpected illness. Crucially, this time cannot be taken for something that the employee previously knew about, such as a hospital appointment. In the law, dependants are clearly defined as spouses, children or someone who depends upon the employee for care.

Preparing for the future: parental bereavement leave

Previously, aside from the minimal period provided by time off for dependants, there is no legal provision that enables working parents time away from work to grieve when their child dies. However, from 2020, a “bereaved parent” will be able to take statutory bereavement leave if they suffer a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy or lose a child aged below 18. The Government has explained that eligible employees will be defined based on the employee’s caring responsibilities for the child to avoid excluding those who are not the child’s legal parents. Under these new provisions, parents will be able to take at least two weeks of leave, either in one single block or as two separate weeks taken at any time within 26 weeks.

Conclusion

Within the modern working environment, employees are increasingly looking for roles that offer more opportunity for a better work-life balance. By taking steps to ensure that all working parents are fully aware of their rights and entitlements, and providing opportunity for them to take advantage of this, employers can help to foster a more positive workforce and work to attract higher numbers of skilled external candidates.

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Last reviewed 16 October 2019