Following a dramatic increase in the number of women reporting pregnancy and maternity discrimination issues, it is vital that employers understand how to avoid these issues.  Almost 2,000 people turned to Citizens Advice for help with pregnancy and maternity discrimination issues between April 2015 and March 2016; an increase of almost 25 per cent on the previous year.

Supporting pregnant employees and those on maternity leave is a must for all employers not only to avoid the possible tribunal claims but to also encourage better employee engagement.

Employers can support new mothers and avoid discrimination claims by doing the following:

1. Maternity Rights and Policy

Ensure that all employees are aware of their rights from the outset. Having a robust maternity policy in place will ensure that everyone is clear on their rights and responsibilities.  As soon as an employee informs you of their pregnancy ensure that you discuss the company’s maternity policy with them and ensure that they fully understand the process.

2. Ensure Good Communication

It’s vital to have effective communication before, during and after maternity leave.  This needs to be effective yet balanced especially during maternity leave when communication must be limited to what is ‘reasonable’.  Regular and effective communication whilst the employee is pregnant will encourage open discussion with the employee on their maternity leave plans and their intentions for their eventual return to work.

3. Right to Return

It is important to remember that employees who have been absent for 26 weeks or less are legally entitled to return to the role they held before their absence, or a suitable alternative role, on no less favourable terms. This right also applies at the end of additional maternity leave although an employer can offer an alternative suitable role if it is not reasonably practical for an employee to return to the same job. If an employee is dismissed because of her pregnancy or maternity status, the dismissal will be automatically unfair and the employer is likely to find itself faced with unfair dismissal and discrimination claims.

4. Flexible Working

All employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service are entitled to request flexible working for any reason. Many women returning from maternity leave apply for flexible working as it allows them more flexibility around childcare.  It is important to give all flexible working request due consideration and deal with them in a timely manner. Requests can only be refused if there is robust business reasons that are legally acceptable.  There are benefits to accepting such requests after maternity leave as it may make the difference between an employee returning or not returning from maternity leave. Refusing such requests could potentially give rise to an indirect sex discrimination claim as it’s now commonly accepted that more women have childcare responsibilities and are effectively disadvantaged by a requirement to work full time.