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Blog: HR – Championing the humans

Sometime ago a friend got in touch wanting to talk about her payslip (I suppose if I wanted salacious gossip I’d have gone into divorce law). This friend, let’s call her Helen, had just started maternity leave and her large, private sector employer offers a modest enhanced maternity scheme. Over a glass of wine we examined the payslip together – an employment lawyer and a professional ‘numbers’ person – and we couldn’t make head nor tail of it. The bottom line was substantially lower than she expected, but it was impossible to even start to work out how it was arrived at.

On my suggestion, she approached the company’s HR department. The response was “Finance says it’s right.” Helen pushed for a breakdown and the HR contact was sympathetic: she’d recently returned from maternity leave herself and had struggled to understand her own pay. Eventually, a scanned copy of a scribbled calculation “from Finance” arrived via HR. They’d used a company notepad – no doubt only because we no longer have fag packets kicking around in offices.

After scratching our heads over this, Helen and I were able to conclude that she’d not been paid her car allowance or certain other benefits. This omission was significant, not least because these payments ought to continue through the later portion of leave when she would be on statutory pay or none. After some pushing, a correction was made. There was a bit of an apology from HR, but none from the anonymous decision-makers in Finance. Helen was still chasing for certain details of the basis for the calculations, and the payments being received still seemed slightly on the low side.

About six months into her leave, a further breakdown came through. It then transpired that Helen’s pay did not include her pay rise, awarded in the summer shortly after she went on leave. When she queried this, HR responded that maternity pay is calculated as an average over a particular period leading up to the expected week of confinement i.e. the pay rise came into effect after the averaging had been done. Armed with some “cut and paste” employment law info, my friend pointed out that she was entitled to the benefit of the pay rise. The HR officer replied to say she was aware of the case law quoted, although that rather begs the question as to why her first response had been so dismissive. Once again a correction was (eventually) made.

Taking maternity leave often leaves employees feeling vulnerable and isolated. Whatever the cause of these errors, the experience of being underpaid, combined with the false and patronising assurances that she was being paid correctly, have led Helen to seriously doubt whether she is valued by her employer. She has come very close to leaving the business which she had always intended to return to. Recently, she received an email from the head of her department in which the clear between-the-lines message was “Please don’t leave and sue us for sex discrimination and constructive unfair dismissal. Pretty please.”

The value of the underpayment in Helen’s case was such that it would never have been cost effective for her to pay for legal advice. How many other women in that business have lost out, perhaps feeling that they had no other option but to accept “Finance says it’s right” as the final answer? How many of them are left with seriously eroded loyalty and confidence over a few hundred quid they were entitled to all along?

The role of HR is a delicate one, to champion the needs of the business in managing a human workforce which, by its nature, is unpredictable and sometimes troublesome; but also to champion the needs of those humans in dealing with an employer which, in many cases, may be faceless, corporate and bureaucratic. I wonder if a little bit more emphasis on the latter might sometimes mitigate the difficulties with the former?

Joanne Sefton
Barrister, Menzies Law

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