"I would walk away from my job rather than my wife"

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
Richard Siwiak spent most of last August waiting for his wife to give birth to their baby. Unfortunately, the child had still not arrived by the time his holidays came to an end and he was due to return to work as a lecturer at Salisbury College, Wiltshire.

As staff are not normally allowed to take holidays during term-time, Mr Siwiak (pictured above) might have faced the prospect of trying to juggle the baby's arrival with his teaching commitments. But Salisbury College is a more enlightened employer than that.

In line with its policy on paternity leave, Mr Siwiak was granted another five days paid leave (which did not affect his annual seven weeks holiday entitlement) during which his wife gave birth to their son. His classes, meanwhile, were covered by colleagues and agency lecturers.

According to Mr Siwiak, Salisbury's policy makes sense as well as being fair to staff. "Imagine if I'd had to walk away from my wife and come to work when she was in labour. I would walk away from my job rather than walk away from my wife," he says.

Salisbury has just over 300 employees, about half of whom are lecturers. By allowing all full-time male staff with 12 months service one week's paid paternity leave, it is being more generous than required under the EU parental leave directive, which only allows for unpaid leave.

The college also assistsemployees with other domestic responsibilities, such as caring for elderly relatives. Last year, it became the first FE college to gain a family-friendly award, a national scheme run by Dorset Training and Enterprise Council.

In January 1999, Val Austin was given two days' paid carers' leave so she could accompany her 24-year-old daughter to Sheffield, where the latter had a major operation. "It's a way of thanking staff for their hard work and appreciates that they have family commitments," says Mrs Austin, team leader for student records in the registry department.

As well as carers' leave and paternity leave (both f which are paid), the college offers unpaid leave to staff facing domestic crises. One person took time off when their house was floodedduring this winter's storms.

Men or women adopting a child can claim up to eight weeks' paid leave, depending upon the child's age, while employees attending the funeral of a near relative are entitled to five days' paid compassionate leave.

Staff can also consult a counsellor, based at Salisbury Hospital, free of charge. "We recognise people have lives outside of work," says personnel manager Rebekah Mundy. "It's a question of balancing home and work."

Salisbury tries to encourage flexible working. While there are only two job-share positions in the college, it offers a mixture of part and full-time contracts, some of which involve people working only during term-time. One technician opted to reduce his weekly hours from 37 to 30 because his son was very ill.

Any employee can work from home up to five days per year with permission from their line manager. During school holidays, staff are allowed to bring children in occasionally, although the personnel department ensures the college is not overrun with youngsters.

Family-friendly policies are not just there to benefit staff. Ms Mundy admits it is also in the college's interest to be flexible, especially in an area with practically no unemployment and a large military presence which means some women wish to take time-off at unusual times to be with partners from the armed services.

The low unemployment means all local employers are targeting women with young children and people close to the statutory retirement age. "We have to be innovative in attracting people who may not necessarily be thinking of coming to work," she says.

Ms Mundy, a keen horsewoman, is acutely aware that people care about more in life than just their job. "I don't have any children, but if anything happened to my horses it would be a domestic crisis for me."

Neil Merrick

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