How to handle flexible working requests

Flexible working – everyone has the right to request it but it’s a minefield…

Though overall tribunal numbers are falling (due to tribunal fees), cases sparked by refused flexible working requests are still prominent.
Only this month an airline employee won a sexual discrimination case after her flexible working request was denied. The airline made their case: they already had too many staff on fixed hours and couldn’t fit any more on them without it having a detrimental impact on the business.
This didn’t cut it for the judge, who found the employer guilty of indirect sexual discrimination on the basis that most employees were women of child-bearing age. This meant that women were placed at a disadvantage to men (who in life, and as recognised by case law, often have fewer child-caring responsibilities). A landmark decision which’ll affect the behaviour of employers in the future!
Clearly, no employer wants to take their business into a tribunal battle. Avoid it by getting your processes right and seeking professional advice when needed.
First things first, spell out what flexible working provision your business will provide, and make sure it’s in your employment handbooks (for a free review get in touch). Your wording should outline the employees’ right to request flexible working, how they should apply and that each case will be evaluated on its own merits within the framework of your policy.
With an aging population, more staff will have caring duties for elderly relatives. So we can expect more employees will need a more flexible approach to be able to manage their lives.
It’s decision time. Circumstances will be different for each employer: you may benefit from working with a more flexible workforce. You can find some of those benefits here; so think, would it make commercial sense?
If not, don’t just reject the request out of hand. When you meet with the employee to discuss their request, explore all the options. Be creative and you may find an alternative solution that caters to both their needs and the needs of your business. This will help prevent relations turning sour and leading you down the tribunal route. Even if it eventually did, the fact that you attempted to explore different solutions to the problem would fall in your favour.
When you are in the position where you need to reject a flexible working request, make sure you have a legitimate business reason. If you’re unsure, play it safe and seek advice. Remember you have to complete the process, including meetings, within three months and if you reject the proposed working arrangement they cannot make another request for one year.
Although this blog post may have given you an indication of the complexity and the dangers you might face when approaching flexible working issues, successful solutions can enhance employee relations. Do your research and seek professional advice to get the best results possible for you and your business.
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Ian heads up the HR Dept Edinburgh & the Lothians team. The HR Dept specialises in helping SMEs with everything to with employment, through a local and personal service delivering practical and pragmatic advice and support. With nearly 30 years HR experience, Ian has a wealth of experience in helping businesses to ensure success through their people, be legally compliant and handle tricky people issues. As a business owner himself, Ian understands the challenges that come with running and growing a business. He is known for his ability to explain complex concepts simply and to make learning fun and enjoyable.