Should everyone get paternity leave like Prince William?

By Margaret Heffernan | Small Business

Small businesses can find parental leave challenging, but it can be managed. Here's how.

I'm glad Prince William is able to take paternity leave. It's good for his family, and he will find that it's good for him too. Not just because he'll get to know George, but because, when fathers return from paternity leave, they're typically better communicators, more patient and more efficient. Learning to juggle at home makes them much better at juggling at work.

But organizations smaller than the Royal Airforce, for which William works, can find maternity and paternity leave hard to manage. If you have a small workforce, the loss of anyone for a day, a week or a month challenges everyone. It's for this reason that small firms generally and Chambers of Commerce routinely resist legislative change.

I think this is short sighted--we need healthy families--but I also appreciate how hard it can be to lose a vital team member for weeks at a time. So what should you do?

Don't Make Assumptions

Whenever one of my employees was about to become a parent, I started with an honest discussion of how they wanted to manage the huge change in their lives. How much leave did they want to take--and when?

I did this because I found that I couldn't make assumptions for them. Some wanted lots of time off at the start; others just wanted a day a week for 6 months. No two parents were the same. Many assumed I'd have a formula and, when I didn't, it allowed them to have valuable honest discussions with their partners about what would work best. Everyone got creative and no one ever let me down.

Involve Everyone

Once I knew what the employee needed, we'd have discussions with the peers and colleagues whose work would be impacted. Could others cover for them and, if so, how? How might their extra commitment be rewarded? If we did need to bring someone in to cover, at what level should we find a replacement?

Frequently, these changes allowed a more junior person to step up and show what they could do--which meant any substitute could come in at a lower level. The sub was sometimes a friend or relative of a current employee. In other words, we almost invariably found ways in which the change benefited others in the business. This stopped people from being annoyed with the parent-to-be and typically allowed everyone to benefit. When we did have to hire in for cover, we tried to find genuine talent that we'd be able to use in the future or longer term; having a network of people to fill in is a resource every business needs.

Recognize the Unknowns

The upshot of this strategy was that I never had any trouble with maternity or paternity leave. What I provided was far more than the law required, with the result that commitment and a sense of camaraderie improved. Why did I make the effort to go to such lengths? Both my babies were born when I was running companies and I didn't see why the freedom I enjoyed should not be shared. But I also knew firsthand that no parent has any idea at all how the birth of their child will impact them. They might think they know, but few do until the child is born. Everyone is learning, and flexibility is key to the process.

I found that treating one person fairly inspired everyone else. Instead of resenting the new arrival, we all shared in a happy event. Invariably the baby was brought in for a visit, and I'll never forget how that lifted everyone's spirits. The whole company remembered what they worked for and why they were there: not just to make money but to make a contribution to the future.

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