My partner is currently on maternity leave from her full-time public sector job. Her employer is undertaking a restructuring which is due to be officially rolled out two weeks after she plans to return from maternity leave. They intend to have competitive interviews for posts before she plans to return from maternity leave. As she will officially fall back into her original post for two weeks before the new structure is rolled out (whereupon she may become unemployed) is her employer legally fulfilling their obligations? Furthermore – can they require her to attend competitive interviews whilst on maternity leave (the argument being that other interviewees would have an advantage over her as she has not been undertaking her duties for almost a year)?
Your partner will have had almost a year off so will be returning from additional maternity leave. This means that she is legally entitled to return to her old job or, if that is not possible, to a suitable alternative job.
As a restructure is proposed and it will take effect after she returns, your partner should be included in the consultation regarding this proposal and go through the same interview process as all other staff.
The employer cannot force your partner to attend interviews whilst on maternity leave, but equally it is not required to delay the process until she returns to work, although it may do so given the short timeframe. If it is not prepared to postpone the interviews, a reasonable employer might consider alternative arrangements, for example, permitting your partner to bring the baby with her, holding the interview by Skype or off site or at a time when the baby might be sleeping. I suggest your partner tells the organisation what (if any) arrangements would help her attend interviews and perform well in them.
Her employer should, in effect, ignore the maternity leave period and look beyond that to her skills and experience prior to the leave period. This would mean she is not treated less favourably in comparison to colleagues who have been in the office in the meantime.
The next stage will be to find out when the employer is deciding who has been successful at interview and, consequently, whose employment will end. From the timeframe you have set out, it seems those decisions will be made fairly quickly after the interviews and around the time of your partner’s return to work.
If the decision is made whilst she is on maternity leave, your partner is afforded special legal protection meaning she must be offered any suitable alternative roles ahead of her colleagues. If, however, it is only made once she’s back at work, your partner will not have this “priority” status. She will, however, still be entitled to be informed of any suitable alternative roles.
In the circumstances, I suggest your partner asks her employer about the process, participates in the consultation, goes through the interview process, finds out when exactly the decision is being made (i.e. before or after she returns) and takes legal advice if she is concerned by the employer’s treatment. If she feels the employer has not complied with its obligations towards her or has treated her less favourably because of the maternity leave, she can consider whether to bring a tribunal claim for unfair dismissal and/or discrimination on grounds of her sex and/or maternity leave.