Mixed messages on flexible working


As the anniversary of the introduction of new flexible working legislation in the UK has been marked by a flurry of research that paints a mixed picture of the impact of the changes on real-world workplaces.

Since April 2003, employees with children under six years old (18 where the child is disabled) have had a legal right to request changes in their working hours or to ask to work from home - and to have their request seriously considered.

According to a survey carried out by the charity Working Families, six out of ten flexible working requests are agreed by employers.

But a separate survey by Maternity Alliance has found that those who ask for flexible working practices often have to accept a pay cut or drop in job status.

A quarter of employees who have agreed flexible working arrangements with their employers have accepted worse conditions as part of the deal, the poll found.

Meanwhile, figures from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTi) found that one in four women had made a flexible working request, but only one in ten men.

Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, said: “…for a man to say he wants to balance work and family is so counter-cultural that many men fear it is going to be career death”.

Almost half of workers told Maternity Alliance that their employers didn’t know about the right to request flexible working or didn’t know the procedure to follow when considering requests. Nine out of ten of those parents whose requests were refused said it was done for unjustified reasons.

Many people are also put off requesting flexible working in the first place because of the high cost of childcare and fear that they would not be able to revert to their original working pattern at a later date.

Working Families found that half of those whose requests to work flexibly had been refused were given reasons that were not those defined as being legitimate in the legislation.

One of the most widely used reasons for rejection was that part time working was not an options for managerial positions.

"A clear pattern emerged from the many comments that employees are being told that flexible working is only suitable at certain levels. Alternatively, those in management positions are told that they can only work flexible hours if they accept a demotion.

"Comments were made about the perceived added management cost and time in employing part-timers," the Working Families report said.

A common theme of both surveys is the widespread belief that the current legislation is too weak, with the only redress being an Employment Tribunal.

Looking ahead to 2006, when the government is due to review the current legislation, both Working Families and Maternity Alliance say that the law needs more bite. Employers’ reasons for refusal cannot currently be challenged by tribunals and parents can only challenge on the grounds that their employer failed to follow the correct procedure for considering requests.

The maximum compensation a parent can receive where a request is not properly considered is £270 a week for eight weeks.

But most of all, they say, most people also want to have flexible hours rather than just a right to request them, unless there is an objective business justification for not granting the request.