Can I turn down a job in another team after maternity leave?

I’ll be returning to work after 12 months off and have just been told there are no vacancies for me to return to in my team as my maternity cover is being kept on. I have been offered a role in another team, but I don’t want it.

If the job titles are the same, but the jobs themselves are completely different with a different remit, can they do this?

Maternity Notice letter

Close-up Of A Woman's Hand Filling Maternity Leave Form Holding Pen Over Desk

Employees who take the full 12 months off for maternity leave are entitled to return to the same job with their employer unless it is not “reasonably practicable”. Essentially this means the employer should consider whether you can be offered your old job back, even if they have maternity cover they want to keep on.

If there has been a genuine re-organisation or some other changes, then offering a suitable alternative role on equivalent salary and terms may be permitted, but an alternative should not be offered just because the employer wants to keep the maternity cover on rather than allow you to return as this could be maternity discrimination.

If the roles are the same, but they would have too many employees when you return, then this could trigger a genuine redundancy situation and employees returning from maternity leave have additional protection (although the cover contract would usually be temporary to avoid this).

However, if there is a suitable alternative job offered where it is genuinely not practicable to return to the old job, it may be fair for the employer to dismiss, assuming they follow a proper process. These comments provide some points to think about in a complicated area of law with short time limits (three months) and therefore seeking legal advice is recommended, along with raising a grievance to challenge the decision as a first step, and contacting ACAS.

*Julie Taylor is a Partner at Fenton Elliott Solicitors and an experienced employment solicitor. 

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