Thales is a global science, technology and engineering organisation operating across aerospace, defence and security, digital identity and security, transport, and space. It employs over 6,500 people in the UK across nine key sites.

The Thales UK employee relations team were made aware of the need for more support for colleagues undergoing fertility treatment through informal feedback from employees. It was evident that their existing provision for fertility treatment, provided through their attendance policy, did not include the information or support employees wanted. 

With a predominantly (78%) male workforce, the team recognised that fertility affects all genders. They wanted to step up to provide more inclusive and family-friendly support through designing a policy that applies equally to those undergoing fertility treatment and those supporting a partner or surrogate through treatment.

Developing an inclusive policy

The policy, developed with employees, is written from a user perspective in gender-neutral language with a focus on clarity and ease of understanding. It uses Thales UK’s internal ‘Tone of Voice’ principles, which emphasise being warm, empathic, straightforward and honest. It applies to all employees regardless of length of service or hours, and covers:

  • the physical and emotional impact fertility treatment can have and the importance of providing workplace support to those experiencing it
  • guidelines on what appropriate support involves and looks like (such as listening, being respectful and not making assumptions) as well as advice on what, and what not, to say to colleagues experiencing fertility issues
  • the range of fertility treatments and preservation options (such as freezing eggs, sperm or embryos) covered under the policy
  • where to go for support, recommending that people discuss their plans and needs with their line manager, but also stressing that they can approach employee relations’ specialists if they prefer – it outlines what they can expect from their manager and provides reassurance regarding confidentiality 
  • options available for leave, including five days’ special leave each year for all employees experiencing, or supporting a partner or surrogate through, fertility treatment – this leave can initially be taken as annual leave and claimed back retrospectively, acknowledging that some people may not wish to discuss their fertility plans at this stage
  • signposting to other sources of information and support – this includes mental health support, medical advice and financial support (for investigations, scans and treatment) that may be available through Thales healthcare cash plan and private medical insurance (for employees who have opted in), support available to all employees and family members through their employee assistance programme, and links to external charities and organisations
  • support and options (including when maternity rights and protections start to apply) if fertility treatment is or isn’t successful.

Process

The team began by reviewing their existing offering and researching best practice. Lizzy Waite (employee relations/employee experience adviser) says, “We wanted to start from a place of empathy, asking ourselves, if I was going through this, what would I want to know? What would I want from the organisation? Would I feel reassured by this policy? Do I feel empowered by what’s in here to take control of the situation and tell the organisation what I need?".

They built a business case to take to the leadership team. This included data on the number of people that infertility affects, why a policy was needed, why employees needed to be involved in its design, what it should cover and the costs/benefits. Then, with the leadership fully behind their approach, they began a consultation process with employees, trade union representatives, heads of HR across the business, the wider employee relations team and their legal team. 

Employee involvement

The feedback process, particularly listening to employees who had experience of fertility treatment, was extremely valuable in shaping the policy. Managing the multiple avenues of feedback efficiently, however, was challenging. Chloe Milham (employee experience partner) says, “We were on draft 11 by the end! We learned useful lessons in terms of when to involve different groups, including keeping trade unions and employee representatives informed of how we’re moving forward so they can share their members’ experience up front to shape a policy before we start on a draft.”

Employees highlighted the need for flexibility to accommodate different experiences but also consistency, particularly in support from line managers. Lizzy says, “Initially we aimed for clarity through a fairly rigid structure, for example, including a table of the different types of leave available and when they might be used. Our employees made it clear that they didn’t want it to be so prescriptive – they wanted to make those decisions themselves. At the same time, we are aware that many managers prefer clear guidelines and have tried to be mindful of this in writing and positioning the policies.”

The fertility treatment policy was first published on the Thales HR platform in September 2021, along with additional resources sourced externally, including a factsheet from Fertility Network UK on how to support colleagues who are going through fertility treatment, advice on how to prepare for a conversation about fertility with your line manager, and a link to a YouTube video about juggling work alongside fertility treatment.

Subsequent employee listening sessions have been valuable in developing a deeper understanding of employees’ needs and improving access to the support on offer. For example, the initial policy offered five days’ special leave for fertility treatment. This was revised to allow colleagues to initially book these days as annual leave and claim them back retrospectively to provide more privacy and flexible support for people who do not wish to discuss their fertility treatment. 

Employee feedback also resulted in the inclusion of guidance on what effective support looks like, as well as examples of statements that should be avoided and what may be more helpful. These changes have been welcomed by managers – who are often unsure of how to approach the topic sensitively – and by people experiencing fertility challenges, who feel listened to. 

Thales have also been working to improve the appearance, style and tone of all their people policies to make them more people-centric, inclusive and accessible. Chloe says, “We are mindful of our colleagues who may be neurodivergent or living with a disability, so we have partnered with Leap Create, a people communications agency to help us with policy transformation. Together we have created accessible versions of our new policies that are in line with the Business Disability Forum design guidelines while also creating something that is visually engaging for all. For these new policies we’re also using an accessible colour palette, and are considering additional formats such as podcasts and text-to-speech software to improve our inclusivity.”

Going forward

A relaunch of the revised policy in spring 2023 will highlight what’s available, where colleagues can find it, why it has been developed and who was involved. A ‘Let’s Talk’ digital discussion is planned to raise awareness, as these have proved to be extremely effective communication tools within the organisation. Recording the event and placing it on their digital platform means employees have access when needed. 

Thales is also striving to advance a supportive culture where policies are enacted fairly and consistently, with a focus on the individual. Ongoing efforts include:

  • raising internal awareness of issues through giving employees the opportunity and space to share their experiences and their needs through ‘Let’s Learn’ activities, noticeboards, articles and videos
  • encouraging and enabling peer-to-peer support where possible
  • targeted training sessions on fertility journeys (as well as pregnancy loss, baby loss and grief) for HR and managers and employees, through partnership with a charity that is an expert in these areas
  • looking externally at how other organisations are addressing similar challenges, seeking collaboration and sharing learning via webinars and LinkedIn
  • establishing ongoing feedback channels to monitor the use of policies and better understand employees’ needs and experiences.

Chloe says, “Awareness-raising activities, training sessions and peer-to-peer support all provide useful qualitative feedback. We’re also looking at the questions we get through our HR shared services portal to identify whether our policies are giving employees the answers they need and are exploring things like feedback buttons, to make conversation between employees and HR easier and help us continually improve.”

Recommendations

  • Make sure that policies are more than a formal legal document. Lead with empathy and use the policy as a channel to speak directly to employees, in language that is easy to understand and communicates what they want to know – for example, not just what they are entitled to but how they access that support. 
  • Ensure that policies are accessible and easy to engage with. Consider presentation and different media formats to maximise accessibility. Highlight key messages as people won’t read all the text.
  • Encourage employee input and make it clear that the policy process is done with employees, not to them. This results in more user-friendly policies, provides reassurance that policies are developed to meet real needs, and encourages employees to come forward for future policy development and reviews. 

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