HR leaders tip their hats to JSE's groundbreaking parental leave policy

JSE HR director Donald Khumalo fielded questions about the policy in this week's Community Conversation.

The CHRO SA Community Conversations, which are hosted in partnership with Workday, are a great platform for HR leaders to ask each other questions, exchange ideas, blow off steam and compare notes on what it's like to be in charge of the people agenda during these trying and uncertain times.

This week’s conversation was led by JSE HR director Donald Khumalo, who shed light on the motivation behind the groundbreaking move to introduce a gender-neutral parental leave policy for all employees at the stock exchange. The new policy enables both men and women to play a role in raising their children whether they have come from birth, via adoption, or through a surrogate.

Since early July, JSE employees with new children have been able to take paid leave over four consecutive months regardless of their gender, tenure or gender identity. Different from maternity leave, which is exclusively for childbearing employees, the parental leave allows employees to stagger their time off. That means a new father, for example, can take the leave after the mother's maternity leave so that the child effectively gets eight months of parental care. 

“We started this journey last year in June because we are a member of the World Federation of Exchanges, which subscribes to the 17 UN Sustainability Goals, and one of those goals is to encourage companies to rid themselves of gender stereotyping policies and introduce gender-neutral policies,” said Donald.

“A number of things informed our decision, not least of which was the change in society. The traditional idea of parenthood being one where families are made up of fathers and childbearing mothers are no longer the only reality. Infertility and same-sex relationships are just two examples of scenarios that can lead couples to a different path, and we felt that our parental leave policy needed to reflect that.”

Donald said the JSE had added a 'B' to their D&I strategy, which is now their Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging strategy. That is why it was important to ensure that their colleagues from the LGBTQI community are treated with respect and dignity, and afforded an equal opportunity to parent without the challenges of a binary parental policy.

At the beginning of this process, one employee told Donald that, while working for a previous employer, they had taken unpaid leave in order to look after their kids because their maternity leave policy did not allow for them to stay home and look after their children while their partner was in ICU in hospital following complications at birth. 

 “These are the kinds of practical considerations we took into account.”

Tough questions

The hardest part about introducing the new policy was, Donald said, convincing the executive team that it would be worthwhile given the cost implications. The leadership looked at the number of males that had taken paternity leave in the past and, given that the average age at the JSE is 37, there were concerns about the cost implications of a policy like this.

Said Donald: “We were very clear that the benefits would far outweigh the costs. I worked very closely with our CFO to put a plan in place around what we would do if the cost would begin to escalate beyond what was reasonably expected. Among other things, we targeted a five percent headcount savings from vacant roles, the savings from which could be allocated to self-fund this policy rather than create an additional cost item.”

HR leaders congratulated Donald and the JSE for the progressive policy, which is seemingly being replicated locally. Vodacom is the most recent company to follow the JSE’s lead after announcing the introduction of a similar policy. With their interest piqued, Donald’s peers shot questions at him to find out how the JSE managed to deal with some of the challenges that can come with a policy of this sort.

Globeleq Senior HR manager, Laura James, asked about employees who may try to game the system.

“How can we resolve the potential issue of absent fathers – sadly too prevalent in this country – who may take a four-month holiday, leaving their partners to look after the child without their help?” asked Laura.

Donald’s response was that the JSE operates on a basis of trust, saying that employees are not monitored or policed, nor can they be, according to the law.

“It's one of the things we dealt with during the focus groups we had in the process of crafting this policy, We trust that employees will take this leave for the purpose it is intended. If they are found to be violating this trust or if it does come to our attention that an employee has abused the system, we will institute disciplinary processes accordingly,” said Donald.

Another question came from Alton's Mamcy Letuka who asked about couples in polygamous relationships, particularly given that there a number of traditions in South Africa that see men having multiple wives.

“This was another issue that came up in their focus groups and, while we respect employees constitutional rights, we countered this challenge by saying that employees were only entitled to take this leave for one child per annum."