A new right of shared parental leave will apply to eligible employees in 2015 which takes the UK a step closer to an equalised system of family rights between men and women on the birth of a child or adoptive partners on an adoption placement. This right will give families more flexibility to manage their lives in the first year of their child's life or adoption placement and may help improve equality and diversity in employment.

Employers, however, will face a new administrative challenge and may incur additional costs in the management of employee absence.  As a result, employers will need to plan and consider innovative solutions to deal with shared parental leave absences.

What is the new right and how does it work?

The new shared parental leave right is available for employees whose baby is due or adoption placement will take place on or after 5 April 2015 and who meet eligibility requirements, including a minimum of 26 weeks in employment.This means that an employee who became pregnant from July 2014 onwards could be eligible to take advantage of the new right. 

If a mother or adopter chooses to curtail their maternity or adoption leave early, the shared parental leave right will then exist for eligible employees whereby the mother may share any untaken maternity leave with the child's father or their partner as parental leave up to a maximum of 50 weeks which must be taken or lost during year one. Any untaken maternity or adoption pay will also become available as statutory shared parental pay up to a maximum of 37 weeks. 

Importantly, unlike the existing rules, employees will be able to stop and start their shared parental leave in minimum blocks of one week and return to work between periods of leave. For example, the mother could take six weeks of maternity leave and return to work, the father could then take 6 weeks of shared parental leave and return to work, the mother could take a further 6 weeks of shared parental leave and return to work and so on until the leave is used.  

An employer will be legally required to grant the first three requests for shared parental leave where this is a request for a continuous period of leave.  If the employee makes additional requests or multiple requests at the one time, the employer may refuse to grant the request. The employer, however, will need to be careful it does not fall foul of discrimination rules or give the employee grounds to claim constructive unfair dismissal in refusing a request.  Practically, the employer will need to consider carefully each request where it has discretion to refuse on a case-by-case basis, weigh up the benefits to the employee against the impact to the business and have a reasonable business justification for rejecting a request. 

As a result of the intermittent nature of the parental leave right, some employers are awaiting its arrival with trepidation. New and fast growing tech companies that rely significantly on specialist research and development and sales employees could find the impact of the rules particularly challenging as often these positions require continued presence in the workplace to meet project deadlines and maintain new business relationships.  

How can an employer manage shared parental leave absence?

Employers will be entitled to receive a minimum of eight weeks' notice prior to taking shared parental leave which will allow some time for absence planning. The employer will need to consider the length of the absence and be ready to act quickly to manage this effectively. 

If the absence is relatively short such as four weeks, the employer may consider asking colleagues to take on extra work on a temporary basis, reorganising workloads in a team, similar to an employee being on holiday, or using agency workers depending on the nature of the role. 

If the absence is for a longer period such as twelve weeks, the employer could consider a short term assignment of an employee from another area of the business to cover the absence as well as the options above.  If there are "business critical" areas within the organisation, the employer could decide to employ fixed term staff for the leave request period or the entire duration of the potential leave period or even have permanent extra staff in that area to provide cover to minimise the impact of absence.  For new tech companies, however, clearly this may not be practical given the cost implications.  Absence cover is also often limited to support rather than operational or strategic roles which require specialist skills. A potential solution may be to have an identified contact pool of specialist contractors that could be called upon to give assistance.

The unpredictability of absence leave requests under the new rules are likely cause the most difficulty for employers and employers should discuss plans with employees in an open and supportive way to minimise their impact.   In practice, there could be limited take up of the new right given that it was reported by the government that only 1% of those fathers or partners that are eligible to take additional paternity leave under the existing in one block have done so. Time will tell whether it will be stormy waters ahead or plain sailing for employers in dealing with the introduction of the new shared parental leave rules.