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What are the legal obligations for keeping in touch with an employee when on maternity/ adoption leave?

By October 30, 2023Case Review
Maternity Leave | Employment Law | HR Solutions

Case Overview

In the case of Miss R Smith vs Greatwell Homes Limited, Miss Smith raised a claim against Greatwell Homes Limited for a failure to be informed of job vacancies whilst on maternity leave, as well as other important company information.

This case provides insights into the legal aspects surrounding the matter of keeping in touch with employees on maternity leave. This case highlights issues related to maternity leave, career progression opportunities, and discriminatory practices.

The Circumstances

Miss R Smith, a business improvement analyst, joined Greatwell Homes in March 2019. Due to the prolonged absence of her line manager, Smith took on additional responsibilities, showcasing her dedication. The company’s Head of Property Services was encouraged by Miss Smith’s performance and encouraged her to apply for more senior posts within the organisation, which would give her more responsibility.

In April 2020, Miss Smith informed her boss that she was pregnant, but it was the start of a period where several issues arose, which ultimately led to Miss Smith resigning and claiming discrimination and constructure dismissal.

  • First, her manager failed to adequately notify the HR department of her pregnancy resulting in Miss Smith having to do so on a further two occasions.
  • As a thank you to all staff for their hard work during the pandemic, all employees were given a free day off work. As Miss Smith worked part time and Fridays were not her normal working day, she was unable to take advantage of this benefit. She asked if she could take her day on another day, but the request was refused.
  • Contact from her employer once maternity leave commenced was limited. Miss Smith received several emails regarding her pension and personal messages, but no other communication. This was contrary to its maternity policy.
  • Seven months into her maternity leave, Miss Smith’s manager sent a text message to inform her that she was to have a new manager, and that there would also be a new Governance Manager starting; both roles had been advertised internally but the vacancies had not been notified to Miss Smith.

Miss Smith raised a grievance for these issues, but it was not upheld.

Then in August 2021, Greatwell Homes began to send job adverts to her, which included the role of the Governance and Assurance Manager which had become available again.   This resulted in Miss Smith resigning on 31 August, which was responded to and accepted on the same day.

The Judgement

The tribunal ruled that Miss Smith had been subjected to less favourable treatment on the grounds that she was on maternity leave and the actions by Greatwell Homes eroded her professional standing within the company.

Specifically, the judge ruled that:

  • During her maternity leave, Miss Smith had faced a lack of communication from the company and considered this negligence reflected the company’s attitude towards her and her pregnancy
  • Her line manager and the HR department both failed to handle the situation appropriately, creating an environment where Miss Smith felt isolated and uninformed.
  • Her exclusion from a company-wide ‘free day off’ due to her part-time schedule, illustrated indirect discrimination against part-time workers, especially females.
  • The company’s failure to inform Miss Smith of job vacancies during her maternity leave hindered her career progression.
  • Greatwell Homes Limited displayed a lack of accountability by attempting to shift blame onto Miss Smith, despite acknowledging its own non-compliance with maternity policies.
  • The text messages informing Miss Smith about new managerial vacancies only after her maternity leave ended were deemed to be actions by the company that were a façade, and merely “window dressing” as a way to disguise the prior mistreatment.

Case Learnings

The judgment highlights several crucial learning points:

  1. Equality and Diversity Awareness: Employers must ensure that staff handling equality and diversity issues are appropriately skilled and experienced. The tribunal criticised the lack of empathy and competence displayed by the company’s representatives, emphasising the importance of a knowledgeable approach to such matters.
  2. Maternity Leave Compliance: The case underscores the significance of complying with maternity leave policies. Failure to keep an employee informed of job vacancies during maternity leave can lead to unfavourable treatment claims and substantial compensation.
  3. Indirect Discrimination: The ruling on the ‘free day off’ highlights the potential for indirect discrimination against part-time workers and, by extension, female employees. Employers should carefully consider the implications of policies that may disproportionately affect specific groups.
  4. Professional Reputation and Unconscious Bias: The tribunal recognized that Smith’s effective and useful image had been eroded due to unconscious bias related to her pregnancy. Employers should be vigilant about unconscious biases affecting decision-making processes, even if unintentional.

In conclusion, this case serves as a reminder to employers about the importance of fair treatment, especially during maternity leave. It underscores the financial consequences and potential damage to a company’s reputation, emphasising the need for strict adherence to equality, diversity, and maternity leave obligations.

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