Employers are being warned that giving priority to workers with dependent children when it comes to agreeing time off over the summer holidays could potentially leave them open to claims of discrimination.
Workplace law consultancy Croner has warned that bosses could be facing pressure from more than six out of ten employees to give priority for annual leave during the summer break to parents or carers.
It, however, is advising employers not to be "too nice" to staff this summer and to exercise caution when devising holiday policies because of the risk of claims being made that they probably had not even considered.
With parents making up around 40 per cent of staff, sympathetic employers may think it "best practice" to offer first refusal for summer leave to parents.
But failure to treat all employees equally could lead to costly claims of direct and indirect sex discrimination – in 2004/2005 the maximum award for sex discrimination was £179,026, said Croner.
Since the role of taking time off to look after children still lay mostly with mothers, male employees could accuse their employer of direct sex discrimination for more favourable treatment towards women when handing out holiday.
A less obvious risk was that of indirect discrimination against childless people, who could argue that female parents or carers receiving priority for holidays, so demonstrating favouritism to that element of the workforce.
Richard Smith, employment services director at Croner, said: "During the summer months most employees want to take time off, regardless of family commitments.
"Employers are facing a dilemma over who should take priority when granting holiday requests, and could well be feeling the pressure from parents or carers to be first in the queue, especially during the six-week school break," he added.
"But our research suggests that many employers are in danger of being too nice to families, which could neglect the needs of other employees, and consequently even lead to sex discrimination claims that could critically impact the financial health of their organisation," he continued.
"The risk of sex discrimination isn't obvious and I'm alarmed by our research which indicates that employers could be making themselves vulnerable to claims – just by trying to do the right thing by families.
"Our message is clear: treat all employees equally. A best practice employer will consider employees' personal circumstances, but on a case-by-case basis, and not a blanket policy," he concluded.
Employers, Croner argued, needed to have a policy in place with guidelines for granting holiday requests, stating that all employees would be treated equally but that personal circumstances might be considered.
It has to be clear to employees that family commitments will not automatically grant an them permission to take annual leave, although an employer may take this into account in an attempt to be fair and reasonable.
Employers should also not be afraid to refuse a holiday request if there was a genuine business reason, such as the need for the work to be done or the premises to be supervised.
If several employees want to take their holiday at the same time, employers should include in their policy how this will be dealt with, (for example "first-come-first-served", asking for volunteers to work, a yearly rota system, or random selection).
Employers should not refuse holiday for disciplinary purposes, as this should be treated as a separate matter, recommended Croner.
Employers should be seen to be actively adopting their holiday policy to help avoid accusations of discrimination, it added.