You’ve thrown the baby shower and waved off your employees for the impending birth – but once they are out the door, are you keeping them in mind or do they become invisible? Your maternity leave policy may detail the conditions of the parental leave, but what does it say about maintaining contact during their absence?
Too often we see disputes arising when an employee returns to find a changed workplace, a modified role or a re-structured department. Returning to work after a long absence – whether the absence was to have a baby, or for other reasons such as illness or a “leave of absence” – can be stressful.
The ease with which the employee returns to work can be enhanced with a few easy steps.
Maintaining The Link
Most people have a personal email address, which makes it even easier to stay in touch if the employee wants to. Communicate proactively with your employees during their absence, about:
- information that all employees in the workplace are told, such as introducing new staff, or updates on company performance;
- any change in your organisation’s structure, procedures or training that may impact upon the absent employee’s role ; and
- inviting them to social events, including farewell lunches or end of year functions.
If there are a number of employees on maternity leave at one time, you could organise a monthly “parents’ morning tea”, to enable absent employees to keep in touch with their colleagues and with the organisation.
Have The Discussion Before The Return To Work Date
Regardless of the reason for the absence, initiating contact with your employee well before the proposed return to work date will enable you to plan the employee’s return to work. Ask whether your employee is intending to return on a full time basis, a part-time basis, or seeking flexible working hours.
If your employee requests flexible working arrangements, allow yourself the time and opportunity to consider them.
Planning ahead will assist you to undertake genuine consideration of the possibility of accommodating an employee’s request for different work arrangements. Otherwise you could run the risk of your employee:
- resigning, resulting in a loss of skill and expertise and recruitment costs; and/or
- lodging a complaint of discrimination and the potential associated legal costs.
Leaving absent employees in the dark about what is happening in the workplace, including appropriate arrangements for their return, can create unnecessary worries. This can escalate into conflict, and the loss of good staff, corporate knowledge and valuable skills.
Ensure A Smooth Transition Back To Work
Keeping in contact while the employee is on long-term leave will keep open the lines of communication, and allow time to manage the employee’s return practically and appropriately. Pro-active planning enables everyone to work together in coming up with mutually acceptable solutions. The longer lead time you have to consider requests for flexible working arrangements, the greater the potential for flexibility and creativity.
In-house mediation – Could a “stitch in time” have saved 24 years of dispute?
An independent inquiry in Canada recently examined a case of alleged racial discrimination with an extraordinary history. The chain of events began in 1987. The internal grievances, human rights complaints and court actions were finally resolved by agreement in June 2005. As part of the agreement, the complainant, Professor Chun, will be on a fully paid leave of absence from the University of Toronto until 30 June 2011 – 24 years after the dispute first arose.
We can’t help but wonder whether the dispute would have taken so long to resolve if the parties had been given the opportunity to resolve their disputes internally, at an early stage, before having to resort to legal action.
The difficulties that Professor Chun faced in having his concerns addressed by his employer were considered by an Independent Committee of Inquiry, commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers . In its Final Report, the Committee commented:
“In the inevitable event that a dispute between individuals arises … it is beneficial to have a quick, fair, and accessible internal dispute resolution mechanism. In the Chun case, the University of Toronto, to its credit, employed various highly qualified people to try to resolve the dispute. These efforts did not begin, however, until years after the commencement of the dispute. We think that implementation of a dispute resolution process earlier in the dispute before attitudes on both sides had hardened would have had a much greater chance of success. It would also have saved a considerable amount of money.” 
Internal dispute resolution mechanisms can take various forms. In an informal conference, the participants discuss the issues with the assistance of a dispute resolution specialist. Mediation is a more structured process, in which the mediator assists the parties to identify the issues in dispute, develop options, consider alternatives and try to reach an agreement. As the mediator is not an employee of the organisation and is “new” to the dispute, the employees are more likely to trust that the mediator’s input will be fair and neutral.
Companies in Australia may have access to Government assistance to hold a mediation in an employment dispute. The ADRAS Scheme, set up as part of the WorkChoices amendments to the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (Cth), gives up to $1,500 of Government assistance for private dispute resolution services, per dispute. Eligible disputes are workplace disputes about certain employment benefits, the application of an award or workplace agreement, and other specified disputes. 
Whatever internal process the organisation chooses, it is important that the process is easily accessible, can commence as soon as possible, and is perceived by all participants as fair and impartial.
Employees should feel comfortable about accessing the organisation’s dispute resolution process first. This will be a preferable alternative to external legal processes, where the complaint will take on a life of its own.
Final Report of the Independent Inquiry, December 2006, p52.