SMEs won't recruit women becaause they might go on maternity leave

A subject that has cropped up with a number SMEs recently is the fear of recruiting women of a ‘child-bearing age’ (a pretty wide age range you would think). It may seem like a dated subject but that doesn’t make it any less real and current for some owners of SMEs. They view maternity leave and pay as an unmanageable drain on the business when budgets are limited and competition is fierce. I’m not questioning the legality as it is clearly a form of discrimination. Rather I want to concentrate on what drives this idea that a whole subsection of employees should be overlooked in the recruitment process and that men are a ‘safer’ bet

Here I’m looking at some of the recurrent themes and an alternative viewpoint.

“I interviewed a man (Jack) and a woman (Jill). Jill was more experienced and probably a better team fit but I’m sure Jack will do well and it’s safer recruiting him” 

If Jill has the experience and is the right team fit, what are you basing ‘he will do well on’ and is that good enough? Is Jack a safe bet if you don’t really think he’s the right person for the job? Have you factored in the time and money it will take to train him to the same level as Jill? And have you considered the impact on the existing team of having a less capable colleague?

Consider that Jack could break a leg and go on long term sick leave, or quit the job because he finds something that’s a better fit. Jill might not be planning on getting pregnant any time soon, or ever for that matter. Do you want to make your decision based on the facts you know to be true now or on what could happen in the future?

If you are serious about your business being successful and profitable you need the best people in addition to the range of skills, knowledge and creativity that only a diverse workforce can offer.

You do need to consider the legal implications of discrimination in your recruitment process and the financial and reputational risk to your business. Now that tribunal fees have been scrapped small businesses are facing a real risk of facing claims. Maternity pay is small change in comparison to potential pay-outs at a tribunal.

“We don’t have the budget to pay maternity pay as well as a salary to the replacement whilst she is on maternity leave”

Many companies offer enhanced maternity pay, and I would encourage it where possible as it is an added benefit and incentive in recruiting and retaining the best staff. However, if the business cannot support enhanced pay you can just offer Statutory Maternity Pay and claim back between 92% and 103% via the HMRC. If you can’t afford the cost upfront you may even be able to claim payment in advance https://www.gov.uk/recover-statutory-payments.

Now that Shared Parental Leave and Pay has been introduced, men are also entitled to an extended period of leave and statutory pay so recruiting a man isn’t a fool-proof means of avoiding costs related to parental rights.

“I don’t have the time or expertise to manage the legal side of maternity leave”

If you have staff you should have some form of HR support in place. It doesn’t have to cost the earth and it would save you valuable time which could be spent on running your business.HR Support with maternity Leave

Sickness absence, poor performance, difficult attitudes, lack of motivation, recruitment and retention of skilled staff……these are issues you are likely to face at some point if you take on staff. If you have been ignoring anything people related or trying to deal with it yourself you have probably already wasted time and money, and potentially put your business at risk. If you have the right support in place managing maternity leave shouldn’t be more costly or difficult than any other people matter.

“Jill will keep needing time off work for ante-natal appointment”

There is clear guidance about what you need to offer staff in terms of time off, and that goes for men as well as women. A reasonable amount of flexibility around hours, managed well, should not adversely impact your business. This is particularly true if you have a productive, focussed, capable staff member. Focus on whether the person is achieving the goals you have set out for them not whether they have a doctor’s appointment. It’s very easy for employees to be ‘present’ at work and yet be doing nothing – better to assess performance on outcomes and achievements rather than presence.

“I don’t have the time or money to recruit a replacement and they’re not going to be very good if they are only here for a brief time anyway”

There are several ways to keep the costs down when it comes to recruitment. Plus, the beauty of someone going on maternity leave, as opposed to resigning, is that you can normally plan well in advance. You can also involve them in the recruitment process which gives them some personal/career development and it will take up less of your time.

There are a lot of highly skilled people who work on a fixed-term contract basis. They may be with you for a year a more, more than long enough to understand the job and flourish in the role. In return, your business can benefit from fresh ideas and a new perspective.

“When she returns to work she won’t be focused on the business she’ll be focused on her child and school runs and having to leave early when her child is sick”

Everyone has a life outside of work and that’s not limited to women. You may prefer your staff to leave their personal lives at the door and to keep time off to a minimum but this is likely to impact on levels of engagement and retention whether they are mothers or not. Men are just as likely to share parental duties and school pick-ups and to want to attend sports days and school nativities.

engaged at workDo you have staff that sit at their desks and chat every morning? Or staff that go for regular cigarette breaks or take time off sick more than other members of the team or who regularly turn up late or sometimes hungover? What’s important is ensuring that ALL your staff, regardless of their gender, are motivated, team-spirited and engaged. If you have someone in your team who isn’t I would argue it is unlikely to be anything to do with being a mother and more about their attitude or feelings towards the company and their job. In which case it can and should be tackled the right way, with HR support.

Having clear, legal and accessible policies relating to time off work and regular communication with each of your staff members means you can be open and transparent about expectations. If you want some amount of flexibility you can build in an element of ‘at the company’s discretion’.

“She will want to request flexible working and as a small business we can’t support that”

Every employee with at least 26 weeks service has a right to request flexible working; male or female, parent or not. The business doesn’t have to agree to a request it if there is a valid business reason to deny it. Put the onus on the employee to highlight how the changes they have requested could impact the business. Ask them for ideas as to how they could mitigate any potential risks. They may surprise you and come up with some great ideas that you hadn’t considered which could even save you money!

So what does this mean for SMEs looking for new recruits?

There are a lot of what if’s when it comes to people. However, if you focus on what your business needs from a new team member, how you are going to test that at interview and how you are going to ensure you get what is expected once they are recruited you are off to a winning start. Be brave, challenge your preconceptions, recruit the best talent, set your business up for success.

Hopefully next time Jill walks through your door and fills you with confidence about her abilities and her potential to contribute to your business you will grab her with both hands! Figuratively not literally, otherwise it’s a whole new topic to cover!