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Case study: Parental leave at Grant Thornton

Recognising that family setups have changed, Grant Thornton overhauled its working parents policies

The company

Grant Thornton UK is an advisory professional services firm and part of Grant Thornton International. It is led by 185 partners and more than 4,500 people as a shared enterprise model, similar to that of the John Lewis Partnership. Shared responsibility means employee representatives sit on Grant Thornton’s oversight board, while shared rewards “open up profits to all of Grant Thornton’s people” according to the firm.

The model also aims to enable employees to better contribute their ideas, by crowdsourcing the firm’s delivery plan. The company is headquartered in Euston, London.

The problem

The meaning of ‘family’ is changing, according to Jenn Barnett, head of people experience for Grant Thornton UK. “Modern families are often more diverse than we previously recognised,” she tells HR magazine. “I’m a stepparent myself, but I’ve found some statuses simply aren’t protected well enough in the workplace. Society still often views women as the primary caregivers, and men as full-time workers. But in many cases that’s not true.”

The people of Grant Thornton agreed. Feedback from employees found that many of them needed to return to work after parental leave sooner than they may have wanted because of financial barriers, which the return to work bonus scheme was failing to address. New parents received enhanced maternity pay (EMP), which was paid during weeks seven to 19 of maternity leave at 50% of salary. Individuals also got a return to work bonus equivalent to two months’ salary.

“Our shared enterprise culture means we encourage our people to come up with ideas such as new products or ways to improve productivity, and then allow them the responsibility to put that into action,” Barnett says. “So, as part of this culture, we decided we needed to include our people in revising our family leave policies from the very start.”

Grant Thornton needed a plan that covered the wide variety of forms modern families come in; including traditional two-parent households, single parents, stepparents and LGBT parents. And who better to decide what benefits families need from work than the parents themselves?

The method

Barnett set about introducing a new policy with a strong focus on flexibility, so parents could choose exactly what they needed to make their lives easier. This new policy allows employees a percentage of their salary as a ‘pot’, which they can use to top up their statutory pay while on leave. “During statutory pay periods people will receive this pay as a minimum and can elect not to use their Family Leave Allowance, or they can decide to use their Family Leave Allowance to top up any statutory pay to 50%, 75% or 100% of their weekly pay,” explains Barnett. “From week 40, when statutory pay ceases, people can also elect to take some weeks of unpaid leave if they wish.

“Mothers and those adopting children are allowed to transfer some of their allowance into shared parental leave pay, and fathers (or partners) are entitled to four weeks’ fully paid shared parental leave, which can be paid flexibly, on top of the two weeks’ ordinary paternity leave.

“This is based on trust,” Barnett explains. “We expect that if a father is sharing leave with a partner who doesn’t work for Grant Thornton that he will tell the government and let them know what he is choosing to do. We’re finding this system is working very well.”

Additionally, transitional coaching has been introduced to help mothers who are about to take maternity leave prepare for balancing their new baby and work.

“New mothers often said they felt guilty about returning to work after having a child,” Barnett adds. “But our coaches can help them with that.” She adds that this has enabled the firm to start addressing the root causes of the gender gap in senior leadership positions. “Society says that women are the ones usually taking time off to have children,” she says. “We want to make it easier for them to progress despite this career break, in a way that is fair and inclusive for everyone.”

Grant Thornton has six values, which spell out CLEARR – collaboration, leadership, excellence, agility, responsibility and respect. The business has a CLEARR representative team, made up of people from a broad range of levels of seniority and areas of the business. The leadership team also reviews new policies. “We needed to make sure both of these teams were happy with our proposals before we went ahead,” Barnett says. The two teams reached an agreement, and the policy was launched.

The result

These new policies have reduced the number of people taking shorter periods of leave, with those taking between nine and 12 months’ maternity leave increasing by 13%. This means parents are more comfortable taking time off in the early months of their new baby’s life.

The firm has also introduced an online family leave calculator, which helps employees experiment with different ways of using their allowance before they have to make a firm decision.

One unexpected benefit from the transitional coaching was the new perspective working with mothers brought to the coaches themselves. “Our male coaches would often tell us they have a new understanding of being a working parent,” Barnett explains. “We are hoping to expand this soon to be able to help fathers-to-be as well.”

Grant Thornton’s efforts were recognised at the Top Employers for Working Families Special Awards 2017, where it received The Allen & Overy Innovation Award.

“Winning was a really fantastic feeling,” Barnett says. “The senior sponsor of the policies, Robert Hannah, the head of operations at Grant Thornton, was really pleased too.”

Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families and chair of the judging panel, says that Grant Thornton won the Innovation Award because of the “strong message” its method sends.

“The panel was impressed that Grant Thornton has put control into the hands of its people with this flexible approach to family leave,” she says. “This sends a very strong message about trust and autonomy – it recognises that the individual knows best what works for their family, and is given the confidence to take a longer leave period if that is what they want. As a result the firm has seen an increase in the average length of leave taken after childbirth.

“It’s also a strong statement that the firm is serious about making family life, working life and career progression compatible,” Jackson adds. “All in all, by enabling an existing policy to work much more flexibly it is having an immediate practical impact.”

This new approach to parental leave is also cost-neutral, meaning it was delivered without any impact on productivity or commercial interests. “We managed this by listening to our people,” Barnett says. “Every family is different, and by recognising that and giving them flexibility we’ve shown people their opinions really matter in this organisation.”