Legal

Seven newsreader brings unfair dismissal claim: What are your obligations to staff on parental leave?

Emma Koehn /

Businesses are urged to remember that communication is key when it comes to managing staff on parental leave, with reports that an unfair dismissal case has been launched by a Channel Seven news presenter.

The Daily Telegraph reports Weekend Sunrise newsreader Talitha Cummins is pursuing the Seven Network for unfair dismissal after she was informed after the birth of her son that she was no longer under contract and her role was not available to her on return to work.

According to the report, she was offered an early morning weekday news spot instead of the weekend shift she had been expecting to return to.

With multinational companies increasingly using generous paid parental leave schemes and flexible work arrangements to court talent, a company’s approach to staffing when an employee leaves work to have a child is always a hot topic.

Prue Gilbert, chief executive of Grace Papers, a digital platform providing support and information on career and family, says good flexible work policy is about good governance and keeping staff engaged.

“Just because your employee is on leave, doesn’t mean they are not an employee anymore. Set up a keeping in touch plan, and diarise to connect with them. This shouldn’t just be six weeks before they are due back to work when you want to know if they are coming back,” she says.

In 2016, HR experts told SmartCompany that getting the basics of parental leave policies right not only ensures staff stick with you for the long term—it can make the productivity of your business stronger in the long term.

“You have to create a buy-in from workers in your business,” founder of flexible recruitment firm Nine2Three Kathryn MacMillan told SmartCompany last year.

To ensure your business’s staffing runs smoothly when some workers are on parental leave, experts recommended using open conversations with staff, and adopting a mindset of “give and take” to ensure teams stay motivated.

Communication is key

Employment lawyer Peter Vitale says businesses need to think carefully about their obligations when a staff member goes on parental leave, and keep communication top of mind.

While no business is static, and it’s likely some operations will have to change their staffing requirements while an employee is on maternity leave, Vitale says it’s important to be clear with your team members—and being aware of whether you are required to to consult before making a decision.

“If there’s a genuine need for change, it’s important all employees are in the loop,” Vitale says.

“First and foremost, if the employee is covered by an award, more often than not the employer will have to consult with the employee.”

This means that before any changes are made, an employer should discuss the reasons for a change in the business, what the new structure will look like and the effects of that change, as well as “what measures might be taken to avoid adverse impacts on the employee”, Vitale advises.

Vitale says in the event of a company restructure, there is no blanket requirement that the business must provide a similar role to employees who are on parental leave. However, he says all businesses should think carefully about the potential consequences of changing staffing structures, and whether they are needed.

“I think in cases like this the business really needs to think very carefully about whether or not there is a genuine operational need to eliminate a position,” he says.

Keeping a record of consultation processes and the reasoning for personnel changes is also important for any future disputes.

“It’s one of the considerations in determining whether or not an employee can make an unfair dismissal obligations,” Vitale says.

SmartCompany contacted the Seven Network but did not receive a comment from the company about the reports. SmartCompany was unable to contact Cummins prior to publication.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.

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