Candida Mottershead

Candida Mottershead, HR director for the UK and Ireland at Accenture, explains how you can create and roll out a successful Shared Parental Leave policy.

It’s now more than two years since the government introduced its Shared Parental Leave (SPL) legislation, giving working parents more flexibility in the way they choose to care for a child during the first 12 months after birth or adoption. The intent was to support a more equal parenting approach, and, in doing so, to improve gender balance in the workplace.

Take-up to date across organisations has been modest. The CIPD found that just 5% of new fathers and 8% of new mothers had opted to take SPL. You might say it’s still early days, and the challenge to traditional parenting roles that SPL represents is dependent on the kind of shift in societal attitudes that does not happen overnight.

I believe this shift is slowly happening. Gender equality is high on the agenda and many men are expressing the desire to take a more active role in the care of their children.

However, at Accenture we also believe that companies have a critical role to play in driving the take-up of SPL. They can not only ensure employees are equipped with the knowledge required to make an informed decision about what works best for their family, but can also foster a culture in which people are encouraged and supported when it comes to balancing their professional and personal lives.

Understanding the nuances

The nuances of SPL are not widely understood, and a comprehensive employee engagement programme is therefore critical. There are multiple ways leave can be taken, and employees need to understand the options available to them and their partners. Proactive employer communications with prospective parents around SPL can have a significant impact, rather than leaving employees to dig out a company policy that may not be particularly decipherable to the average person.

Proactive communication not only ensures employees are sufficiently informed, it also conveys the message that the organisation is committed to SPL and is not simply following a government mandate. On this note, who talks about SPL within the organisation is important too. At Accenture, our SPL communication is not confined to our HR and Inclusion and Diversity leaders. It is also driven through various employee networks as well as our UK board. It’s important to demonstrate senior leaders’ support for SPL, to encourage employees to embrace the opportunity and to address any concerns they might have about taking time out from their careers.

Dedicated workshops offer the opportunity to explain SPL in simple terms and answer any questions employees may have. They also provide a forum for employees who have already taken SPL to share their experiences. Role models are vital to change, and storytelling really does have the power to alter perceptions, helping to break down any real or perceived barriers to take-up of a policy that may challenge cultural expectations around parenting roles. Listening to someone who has returned from parental leave extolling the benefits and opening up about their new perspective can have a powerful impact on an employee who is weighing up the decision.

Showcasing experiences

At Accenture, by showcasing our SPL takers’ experiences both internally and externally, we aim to demonstrate the inclusivity of the policy and dispel any myths about parental leave having a negative impact on career progression. These stories, which include a same-sex couple and people who have been promoted while on SPL, help to challenge any misperceptions and ultimately drive uptake.

Of course, financial implications will always be critical to prospective parents’ decision making, and there is no statutory requirement for employers to match shared parental pay with any enhanced maternity pay. We see SPL as a key tool in driving workforce gender equality as well as employee satisfaction, and we designed our policy accordingly to give mothers, primary adopters, fathers and partners equal access to up to 32 weeks fully paid leave.

Based on our experience I firmly believe that organisations will reap the rewards of progressive family leave policies in terms of increased employee engagement and loyalty, as people return to the workforce energised and inspired.

It’s an exciting time when organisations can help accelerate the journey towards gender equality, both within and beyond the workplace. Society is changing, and we can play a role in supporting those cultural shifts that have the potential to positively impact peoples’ lives.