When leading tobacco and vaping manufacturer JTI introduced a radical new global Family Leave policy, entitling everyone to 20 weeks’ paid leave, employees were thrilled but some line managers worried about the effect this would have on their teams. Natalie Richardson, Inclusion and Office Operations Director, shares how the JTI UK People and Culture team successfully navigated the challenge.

When we introduced our global Family Leave policy in January 2021, it was a landmark moment for our organisation – but one we knew we had to approach with care. The most far-reaching change we’d ever made to our employee benefits. A huge step forward in our Diversity and Inclusion journey. But also: a big potential headache for some of our line managers.

At JTI UK, we’ve always been committed to breaking down barriers and offering people choice, but this new policy was about to take that to a whole new level. All parents, regardless of location, gender, sexual orientation or whether they become a parent via adoption, surrogacy, or birth, are now entitled to 20 weeks’ paid leave.

The policy has been transformational for our employees; one individual told us that our generous Family Leave benefitted their adoption application as it gave them more time to bond with their children. But we knew line managers would have lots of questions about the impact on their teams.

Crucially, we didn’t just want to assuage managers’ concerns; we wanted them to feel excited about the policy and actively promote its benefits to their teams. After all, we want employees to take advantage of it with confidence, not tiptoe around it or feel apologetic for wanting to go on leave.

Here are the five principles that helped us strike the right balance and get line managers on board.

  1. Engage early and anticipate challenges

Change can feel scary. Whenever you introduce something new – no matter how beneficial – you’re likely to face an initial reaction of ‘how’s this going to work?’.

To help line managers feel comfortable with the new policy, we engaged with them as early as possible. We communicated with all areas of the business directly, explaining the benefits, listening to concerns, and discussing solutions. We didn’t want anyone to feel unprepared or learn about the changes to Family Leave through the company grapevine.

We also identified the functions that were likely to find the changes especially challenging – such as Sales and Finance – and spent extra time engaging with them, face to face where possible, encouraging open discussion.

What’s more, we proactively looked for aspects of the new policy that could be perceived as difficult.

One of the most exciting elements of our policy is that employees don’t have to take the full 20 weeks in one go but can choose to take their leave in several blocks, to suit their family’s needs. It’s a decision that reflects our commitment to flexibility and personal choice and delivers fantastic benefits for families – but we knew some managers would worry about organising cover.

By engaging early and anticipating concerns, we were able to build trust with managers, demonstrate our understanding of their unique requirements and start the process of finding practical solutions.

  1. Be open, honest and transparent

Nothing will erode trust faster than pretending there won’t be challenges. Line managers don’t want to be told not to worry; they want to know their concerns are taken seriously and they’ll get an honest answer from you no matter what.

Openness, honesty and transparency are core tenets of how we do business at JTI UK anyway, but we took special care to use clear and straightforward language when talking to line managers about Family Leave. Strictly no HR buzzwords or jargon allowed.

And always bring it back to positive solutions. We would tell line mangers: ‘Yes, you’re going to have to get someone to cover that position and, yes, it may be challenging. But let us help you with that.’

People may not always like what you have to say, but they’ll respect you for telling it straight.

  1. Listen and take concerns seriously

‘I won’t have anyone left.’

‘I’ll never be able to find someone to cover that position.’

It’s fair to say we heard a wide range of concerns and objections when we first started talking to line managers about Family Leave.

Yet no matter how far-fetched some objections might seem, it’s important to listen to everyone’s concerns and be empathetic. We would say to line managers: there are no stupid questions; you can ask us anything.

As soon as we got those concerns out in the open, we found the conversation would take on a more constructive tone and it was much easier to find a solution.

  1. Help line managers to see the bigger picture

When talking about Family Leave, it’s easy to get stuck in the practicalities of ‘who is going to be off when’ and ‘how am I going to cover for this-and-this role’.

But to achieve true buy-in, it’s vital to look beyond individual cases and show how Family Leave creates positive outcomes for the wider organisation and society 

We often talk to our line managers about how new ways of working also means new ways of living. Work is just one aspect of people’s life. By offering inclusive paid Family Leave, we are empowering everyone – regardless of who they are – to take care of both their career and their new family.

This drives performance benefits, too. When new parents come back from Family Leave, they’re refreshed and find it easier to strike the right balance between work and home life. Plus, they feel positive about working for us, which ultimately helps with retention.

Family Leave is great for parents, but it also provides invaluable opportunities for other employees as secondment roles are often created. These secondments can give people a taste of a new role or allow them to work at manager level for the first time. It’s made a real difference to people’s career progression and development across the organisation.

  1. Continue the conversation

Two years since the introduction of our Family Leave policy, it’s embedded in our working practices, and we’ve received fantastic feedback following conversations with colleagues. But we know getting manager buy-in is not a case of ‘one and done’. It’s important to keep communicating so the policy remains on everyone’s radar and potential issues are identified early.

We use every opportunity and every touchpoint to emphasise the importance of Family Leave. We also regularly communicate positive stories of how paid Family Leave has made a difference to employees’ lives.

One employee told us our Family Leave was “game-changing” for their partner after a stressful birth experience. This individual was also happily promoted while on Family Leave, proving that employees don’t have to choose between their career and their family.

Sharing such success stories is hugely impactful and helps bring the policy to life.

We continue to encourage managers to talk to each other about how they’ve adapted to the policy. We found there are few things more convincing to a manager than hearing that someone else has faced similar challenges and coped just fine.

Our approach within the HR team is ever evolving. We closely monitor the success of the policy and its impact on Inclusion and Wellbeing. We’ve recently completed a benchmarking exercise with Working Families that will help us identify where we can improve further.

We remain focused on ensuring a holistic approach; tying in Family Leave with our flexible working policy and supporting employees with free access to Apps like Peppy and My Family Care.

Offering paid Family Leave that’s truly inclusive – and getting line manager buy-in for it – isn’t always easy, but we couldn’t be prouder of the difference it’s made. It’s been amazing to see our policy have a tangible impact on our employees’ home lives, and we’re already excited to take the next step in our Diversity and Inclusion journey.


Natalie Richardson is the Inclusion and Office Operations Director at JTI.