This week, a woman was awarded damages of up to £8,000 after she was not invited to her work’s Christmas drinks while on maternity leave.
During an employment tribunal, Catriona Howie’s former employer, the kitchen firm Holloways of London, argued that the get-together was a last-minute arrangement at a pub after a difficult financial year, and no-one had deliberately intended to exclude her. However, the judge ruled in favour of Howie, who said that the lack of invitation was discriminatory, and pointed out other issues with her maternity leave.
According to Joeli Brearley, founder and CEO of charity Pregnant Then Screwed, the case serves as a reminder to businesses that women often feel forgotten after giving birth. “While you are on maternity leave and shouldn’t be required to work or to join calls, employers still need to treat you as an employee. This includes updating you on key company updates and inviting you to company events.
“It can seem trivial to be left out, but with 54,000 women pushed out of jobs every year for having kids, it’s also a reality that being forgotten can evolve into something more.”
The case raises the question of where boundaries are drawn: should new mothers expect to get invited to every work drinks and company update, or should bosses step back to give them space while they adapt to their new life as a parent?
We hear two takes on the story below…
‘I know exactly how left out you can feel on maternity leave – the invitation to the Christmas party is really important’
I went on maternity leave from my job at an insurance company at the start of last year, just as the pandemic was gathering steam. Shortly after my baby was born, the company switched to working from home. This must have been a difficult time for everyone at the company to feel connected, and the managers realised that.
They started checking in on their employees, sending out little gifts and putting in additional support for parents who were trying to juggle working from home and childcare.
However, the women on maternity leave got none of that. It was like we had been forgotten, at one of the most challenging times ever in our lives and careers.
I was getting increasingly disillusioned with the situation throughout the year, so I got in touch with Pregnant Then Screwed, who are fighting for better protection for mothers in the pandemic.
At Christmas came the final straw. With all the restrictions, I’d assumed that the annual big party was cancelled. But afterwards I discovered that it had gone ahead online, with drinks sent out to employees. I just wasn’t invited.
After I found out, I raised the issue with my manager, saying how disappointed and left out I’d felt. They didn’t give me a proper apology or anything, and just said that it had been an oversight. They made it feel like I had raised the most trivial concern, when it really wasn’t.
It feels like their policy is to leave the ball in the mother’s court when you’re on maternity leave: it’s up to you to initiate communication. But how could I have made sure that I was invited to a party that I hadn’t even known was going on? I do also think that in such difficult circumstances as the pandemic they could have made some contact first.
It feels so disappointing to realise that I don’t work for a company that takes women’s opinions seriously.
‘You don’t want to make new mothers feel pressure to come to every company party’
By Charlie Menegatos, co-owner, Going Greek restaurants
As a boss, I’ve learnt that you really can’t guess how an employee will want to be treated when they go on maternity leave. Our company tries to be as social as we can, and before the pandemic we would have drinks together when the restaurants were shut. Some women on maternity leave get bored of being at home all the time and fancy a night out with us, leaving their baby with their partner.
But that’s not the case for all women. If you’re the sole or primary carer for your baby, you might not be able to spend the evening away from them, and some women just want to spend as much time as they can with their precious child.
You need to be careful giving invitations to new mothers so they don’t feel like there is pressure to attend – they are free to do what they like with their leave and don’t have to come if they don’t want to. After all, it’s meant to be a time when you’re not worrying about your job – there are more important things to be thinking about.
I have also seen the issue from the other side as a parent and husband. My wife was treated pretty poorly when she was on maternity leave, when her company acted as though she wasn’t a full employee like everyone else. I completely see how these issues have to be treated with care.
Looking after staff in every way we can, including through maternity leave, means they feel like part of the Going Greek family. It pays off with staff loyalty and happy customers.