‘Are you nuts? You can’t do that! You’ll go bankrupt!’
Nine times of ten, these were the remarks Nikki Beaumont, the founder of boutique recruitment firm Beaumont People, received when she asked her peers, mostly fellow business owners, about introducing paid parental leave for her staff.
“That actually spurred me on,” she laughs. “I wish I had done it years earlier.”
Parents-at-Work chief executive Emma Walsh describes the gender equal and generous policy that Nikki developed and introduced as ground-breaking.
“It arguably catapults them into the league of the most generous, progressive and family friendly employers in Australia, rivalling even the best policies usually reserved for tech and banking giants,” Walsh says in an exclusive interview with Nikki Beaumont. “It proves smaller employers in Australia can support paid parental leave and are willing to.”
Nikki Beaumont is a parent herself who employs around 35 people between Sydney and Byron Bay in the business she started 18 years ago. Most of her employees are women, not by design, and despite wanting to offer paid parental leave she didn’t think it was feasible.
“Running a business with a largely female workforce and seeing people go on parental leave and come back means it was something I thought about but I honestly didn’t think we could afford it,” she says. “I work with some amazing families and women, lots of whom work part time or flexibly, and I certainly appreciate the importance of supporting people.”
Yet when she sat down and crunched the numbers she realised it was possible.
“That’s when it got exciting. I can afford this! It isn’t out of bounds for us.”
Looking at the numbers Beaumont realised it was less than 10% of her workforce who took parental leave in any given year: generally between 2 and 3 staff members.
“I just calculated, ‘if this is how much it costs per person, and it’s likely to impact this number of people’, I could work out how affordable it was. And it was.”
All staff are entitled to between 12 and 16 weeks of paid leave at the minimum wage depending on their tenure, and it can be taken in whatever fashion suits the employee. There is also a bonus regime whereby employees can ‘bank’ their bonus and have it paid out while they’re on parental leave.
There are an additional five paid days available for each employee to use while they’re on leave to stay connected with the business. If they want to come into work, attend a conference or do a course, they can.
Beaumont started out with an open mind when designing the policy and it quickly became apparent that it needed to be gender neutral.
“From my research the ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carer concepts seemed really inflexible,” she says. “In my household – and my MD’s household – we both have stay-at-home dads. I’ve seen how wonderful it is for my family unit to have a dad at home with that relationship.
All those things came together for me and it seemed obvious it had to be gender neutral. Just because a mum gives birth, doesn’t mean they’re the only parent.”
Nikki is hopeful that the policy will actually appeal to dads.
“I have a much smaller percentage of men in the business so the risk of the cost getting out of control because it available to men and women is less of a concern. But I want to attract more men to work in my business. That’s something I’m working on because I don’t have the balance I’d like.”
After running the numbers to ensure it made sense financially, Nikki then stopped looking at it from a “commercial perspective”.
“I tries to look at it holistically. ‘How would I feel? What would I want?’ And flexibility is ultimately what I would have wanted. We’ve tried to write things in to cover all bases but if anything comes up that’s outside the guidelines we’ll look at it. It seems fair to me to give people the chance for us to be as flexible as possible.”
Parents-at-Work chief executive, Emma Walsh, and founding member of the Advancing Parental Leave Equality Network (APLEN), formed earlier this year to promote parental leave, says Beaumont People’s policy makes clear paid parental leave is affordable even for smaller businesses.
“It raises the question – why don’t more employers offer it? We know that more than 50% of organisations in Australia don’t have an employer-funded parental leave scheme,” Walsh says.
APLEN has been set up as a ground-breaking and pro-active network to work together to advance parental leave equality in Australia, by engaging the business community to normalise parental leave for both men and women.
“People often ask what makes my business successful and the answer is simple. It’s my people. That’s it,” Beaumont says. “If you want to attract and retain the right people, you’ve got to have policies that back it up and an environment that works for people. This is just one part of that but it’s essential and makes a big point about how you value your people.”