Business Essentials: The parent trap threatens to catch employers in its grip

A lifestyle adviser whose staff are all female isn't sure how she will fill the breach during the battle of the bulge, finds Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

Anyone who has worked in a female- dominated organisation may well be aware of the "ripple effect": when one woman gets pregnant, others seem to follow. Before you know it, half your workforce is out of the office giving birth or attending to newborn babies.

Anyone who has worked in a female- dominated organisation may well be aware of the "ripple effect": when one woman gets pregnant, others seem to follow. Before you know it, half your workforce is out of the office giving birth or attending to newborn babies.

The ripple effect is a particular concern for Jane Lowther, director of Time and Knowledge, a lifestyle-management company. All 10 of her staff members are female, about half are of child-bearing age and at least one has already told her she's ready to start a family.

"I'm pleased we're an open enough company that she felt she could tell me," says Ms Lowther. "But it's also a reminder that we haven't made any plans for how we'd manage it. We're a small team, which makes it even more of a pressing issue."

The gender imbalance at Time and Knowledge does not mean that Ms Lowther has anything against men, she claims. "It's just that the ones we've taken on don't seem to grasp our way of doing business. They don't really seem to understand that our ethos is to go that extra mile for our clients, but that we are not out to make a fantastic profit as a result.

"I would rather have a well-respected company and make a decent living, than rip people off and be rich."

The bulk of her clients are employers, which provide their staff with Time and Knowledge's service, entitled help@hand. "People are so busy these days that they don't have time to find good gardeners, cleaners, plumbers and so on," she explains. "So we do it for them.

"In addition, we're a travel agent and we can find out information for people on whether, say, they need a visa in a particular country. As long as it's ethical and legal, we'll find out about any lifestyle issue in return for an annual fee."

Roughly half of Time and Knowledge's staff are lifestyle consultants, aiming to fulfil these requests. The other half are business development managers, who look after the clients.

Among Ms Lowther's concerns is how to plan maternity leave for staff from both these groups, and ensure she is acting fairly and legally. She is also anxious about what she'll do while any employee is off work. "Should I get someone in part-time? Should I ask the other staff to cover her workload? We're a small, self-funded company and we don't have loads of funds to throw around when it comes to recruitment.

"There is also the whole area of what happens when women come back from maternity leave," she adds. "Will they come back at all? What if they want to work part-time and I can't accommodate that?"

In addition, she has anxieties about staff who are unable to get pregnant. "Will they have to take lots of time off work to go to a fertility clinic? Will they get depressed? The whole issue appears more and more complicated the more I think about it."

At least Time and Knowledge has an excellent record for staff retention. "People like working here and I'm keen to ensure that we continue to look after them," says Ms Lowther. "I want to know how to do that, without the firm losing out as a result."

www.hand.uk.net

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Rebecca Clake, organisation and resourcing adviser, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)

"You may have to pay for cover, but showing you value staff and giving them the chance to return to work will help retain them and can cut recruitment costs in the long term.

"Offering more choice when it comes to working patterns pays off in terms of employees' commitment and performance, so flexible hours will enable you to widen your recruitment base and compete in the war for talent.

"As regards maternity cover, using more expensive agency staff isn't the only option. For example, existing workers may want extra hours and added responsibility, or there may be the chance to use a university student/ school leaver to cover some of the hours and gain experience.

"The Government plans to extend paid maternity leave over the next few years and is considering making it transferable to the father, which will encourage a better way of sharing the caring role."

Catherine Rogan, legal adviser, Working Families (the campaigning charity)

"As Time and Knowledge is a small firm, it should be able to claim 104 per cent of statutory maternity pay back, so would have no problem hiring temporary workers. It may even find this is a good way of finding talented new people to provide flexible cover in the future.

"If outsiders are recruited, Ms Lowther should ensure they are on fixed-term contracts that can be ended by four weeks' notice, in case the employee comes back early.

"Women are more likely to return from maternity leave if they are offered some flexibility, and not rushed. Small firms often feel that, because of their size, staff make impossible demands when they seek flexible hours. But this isn't the case. For example, if someone wanted a compressed week - three long days, say - this would offer phone cover early in the day and late in the evening."

Stewart Masterton, business adviser, Business Link for London

"It is worth taking guidance on maternity-related employment issues from a human resources adviser, who can be located through your local Business Link.

"If you take on maternity cover, state in writing that the job will be terminated when your employee returns. This is classed as fair dismissal under the Employment Relations Act.

"You must also inform an employee when she is due to return to work. Staff are entitled to up to 26 weeks' unpaid additional leave once the ordinary maternity period finishes.

"And you must consider any request to return to work part time. Refusal to offer this could mean falling foul of the Flexible Working Regulations 2003.

"Most jobs can be done on a part-time, job-share basis, and considering temporary staff allows you to buy flexible cover. Encouraging staff to come back to your business is important, so create attractive employment packages, tailor-made to the needs of your workforce."

For further information, contact Acas on 08457 474747, or go to www.dwp.gov.uk

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