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How to manage leave in smaller businesses

Chris Evans

A recent survey by the Institute of Leadership & Management showed that a quarter of fathers were not taking paternity leave due to ingrained cultural attitudes of employers. Chris Evans talks to experts and provides a guide for managers of smaller businesses on the best ways to handle all types of leave

The absence of a key staff member through illness, holiday or maternity/paternity leave can have a devastating effect on a small business. This is why owners and managers could be forgiven for having a prescriptive and restrictive approach to their employees. But actually with proper preparation, flexibility and advice, all leaves of absence can be handled to suit both sides.

“The biggest challenge for small business managers is bringing the subject up in the first place,” says Rob Brown, one of the UK’s leading authorities on business relationships. “Getting the conversation and tone right is vital, particularly when discussing maternity or paternity leave. If something is taken the wrong way as a sign of lack of loyalty or commitment, and that goes for the manager and employee, then that can cause problems.”

An employee’s contract will often specify holiday allowance, but it is also important for managers to stress when they would prefer employees to take those holidays so they’re not left in the lurch during busy periods. 

To cover their backs further, more small businesses are hiring flexible staff. “There’s a tendency to bring in people on a part-time bases or have them work from home, or even freelancers that managers can call on at a moment’s notice to cover holidays and sickness,” says Steve Thompson-Martyn, managing director of CDL Consulting.

In the most part, small businesses employees are loyal to their bosses, and realise the importance of their contributions, so are unlikely to cause problems when it comes to taking time off. But Thompson-Martyn still warns of the importance for managers to monitor spot single day absences.
“As an organisation you need to put policies in place where if an employee has more than, say, five spot single day absences over a 6 month period, then a discussion is required, and potentially disciplinary measures taken,” says Martyn.

As for the more sensitive issue of maternity leave, it is vital that the manager and employee have an open and honest dialogue throughout the pregnancy and discuss future plans before they leave. Of 1,000 returning new mothers surveyed by OnePoll recently, almost a third felt they were not well treated by their employer while on maternity leave.

Employees are required to give a minimum of 15 weeks’ prior notice of their expected week of childbirth, which gives plenty of time for the manager to find alternative arrangements, and agree what pay and benefits the employee will receive.

“If you’re bringing in maternity cover, don’t assume you need a like for like replacement. It might just be aspects of the role that need replacing, plus the expectant mother might want to continue working in some capacity once the baby is born. This can usually be established beforehand,” says Thompson-Martyn.

If a replacement is required it is advisable to create a crossover period where he/she can shadow the outgoing member of staff to make the transition smooth. If it’s a more specialised role, it’s about investing time with HR to find a solid and capable replacement.  

With paternity leave, it is again about talking to the employee to allow them to take their statutory one or two weeks, and establish cover, if required, and be open to discussions about longer time off, if possible. The government has also weighed in with flexibility support plans to allow parents to share their maternity and paternity leave from April next year.

Possibly the hardest leave to deal with is long term illness. There are potential legal and emotional minefields to cross, and one false step could cause the demise of the business. Preparation and flexibility are again vital.

On a practical level, having the right insurance in place is a good start. “Things like key man and critical illness cover are advisable. At my own company, if I’m away for more than a month, we have insurance in place that will pay for the economic value I would have brought to the organisation, and allows the company time to find a suitable replacement,” says Thompson-Martyn.

Handling the emotional side is understandably more difficult for both sides. With something like cancer, there tend to be stages to deal with. There’s the early diagnosis, when the employee might need time off to deal with immediate effects. Then the prognosis and treatment required. Some can come back to work and largely function, with a little flexibility on hours. Others might decide not to return. 

“Supporting the employee throughout is obviously key, but also ensuring the business is okay if the person leaves,” says Brown. “There are rules and procedures you have to follow. Larger businesses have Union reps who tell you what you should be doing, but smaller businesses often don’t find out what they should have done until it’s too late.”

Brown’s advice is for businesses to have an employment consultant or adviser. “They can be placed on a retainer every month, so are on the end of the phone if needs be or could come into the business one day a month and handle any serious HR or staff problems.”  

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