Imagine this if you will. I am in a social situation, chatting to a recently retired business leader. We get into a discussion about what I do for a living. It becomes very clear to me very quickly that this man probably reads the Daily Mail. He is a fully signed up, card carrying, ‘employment rights have gone mad’ type. Our conversations ranges over how TUPE is a joke as it is too much ‘red tape’, through to employment tribunals shouldn’t exist and people should be employed at will so he could dismiss people if he feels like it. He really thinks that it is employers who have it tough rather than his employees, whom he admits he pays less than the living wage. It is worth noting at this point, that this man owns a helicopter. Then, as the conversation progressed, he launched the nuclear strike. ‘When I ran my business, I never hired women of child bearing age as maternity leave is too expensive and disruptive.’
At this point, I went what can only be described as a funny shade of purple. I was in a situation that required me not to in any way cause him physical injury. So, as they used to say in the best tradition of News of the World journalism, I made my excuses and left. His view was so ingrained, so fundamentally entrenched, that I considered a debate would have been simply a waste of my breath.
Here’s the thing. The latest research tells you that these attitudes exist, one of heck of a lot more than we would really like to admit. See this earlier post from me, and the links within it to the work being done by Maternity Action. I’ve also heard dozens of women say that they have been asked questions at job interviews about whether they have kids, or are planning to have them.
Questions like these have assumptions built in. That all women want children. That if they do, they will take a full year of maternity leave. That covering this leave will be a huge problem. That when the woman returns from maternity leave, she will want to work part time. That if she does, flexible working is difficult and other people will want it too and that will set a precedent. And so on.
Well you know what they say about assumptions.
These are just some of the reasons I welcomed the recently announced and forthcoming Grandparent leave. Because when anyone can take leave to look after a child, such outdated views become redundant. Assumptions about who will do what and when simply no longer apply. And men like the one described above have less power to wield through exercising their outdated and biased views. Changes in law can drive changes in thinking, changes in behaviour, intended or otherwise. And when they don’t, sometimes they just force the issue.
If you stop hiring people just in case they take leave, then you would never hire anyone. Such views are desperately short term. Hire the best person for the job, always. Anyone can get sick, leave, get headhunted, suddenly become a carer, have a change of priorities… the list goes on. Some of these changes are permanent, and some merely temporary. Assumptions limit your talent pool which limits your business.
Although on that particular occasion I chose to walk away rather than share my feelings, there are still actions that as HR professionals and individuals we can take. You can chose not to follow my example and challenge these attitudes where you see them – especially if you see them within your organisation. You can have policies that support more men taking parental leave and shared parental leave. You can embrace grandparental leave when it arrives and do the same (or just offer it now). You can support the work of #MothersWork2015.
And when it comes to the guy who made me turn purple, and others like him? I’ve always believed that to a large extent, you get the employee relations that you deserve. There was probably a good reason that he spent so much of his time dealing with grievances and employment tribunal claims: the way that he treated his people.