Guest Opinion: Duncan Brown, CIPD

Duncan Brown, assistant director general of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says that government action is way behind even the most commonplace examples of HR best practice

On Monday, one of our new parents at the CIPD came to work with bagged eyes and the telltale stain of regurgitated milk on his jacket shoulder. Being a parent is hardly glamorous, but suddenly we’re [conspicuous] political property. The major parties have been falling over themselves with enticing electoral offers of better childcare, enhanced maternity pay and longer paternity leave.

No doubt the British Chambers of Commerce will be adding these offers to their estimated £11 billion [total] ‘cost’ of employment regulation since Labour came to power, and opposing them.

At the CIPD we oppose such simplistic rhetoric and strongly support actions that help employees to better achieve both work and home life objectives, even if that mythical balance is beyond the reach of most of us.

However, CIPD research is leading us to question the effectiveness of employment legislation alone. Take diversity. Our review of 25 years of Discrimination and the law: Does the system suit the purpose?, concludes that progress has been disappointing. In areas such as equal pay, legislation has hindered progress as much as it has helped it.

The CIPD’s latest survey of Flexible working and paternity leave illustrates the difficulties. Some 80% of employers offer flexible working options, and 90% of employees have had their requests granted under the 2003 family friendly legislation. Three-quarters of employers have gone beyond the minimum requirement and offer the facility to all staff.

Yet the government’s intention to increase the two-week period of statutory paternity leave faces some major obstacles. Fewer than half the fathers polled said they would take paternity leave at the current rate of £102.80 a week. We found many had taken holiday entitlement instead to help out at home and maintain their earnings. Legislating an increased leave entitlement is unlikely to have any impact.

A coherent, well-designed and flexible framework of employment law is an important lever for change, but it is not enough. Effecting change has to be about engaging mindsets and personal ownership. And crucially, the business case for action and the micro-level needs of the organisation and employees must be centre-stage.

The growing band of enlightened employers reported on in Employee Benefits, with flexible working and other people management policies that go beyond the statutory minimum, aren’t stupid or just currying favour with the government.

They recognise that, as organisations such as Asda demonstrate, in our service and people-based economy, making somewhere a great place to work isn’t just an on-cost. It’s the single, most critical ingredient in making it a great place for customers and thereby a great place to make money for investors.

So who’s going to be first to offer dry cleaning as a paternity benefit?