Career fear forces employees to shun opportunity for flexible working

People are not taking up their right to request flexible working for fear it will damage their career prospects, research has revealed.

The findings undermine HR director Imelda Walsh’s long-awaited recommendations to the government on extending the right to request flexible working beyond those with young children.

Walsh’s review, which will say whether the right to request should be extended to parents with children aged 12, 16 or 18, is expected to be published imminently.

But the Flexible Working and Performance study of 3,500 employees by charity Working Families (in association with the Cranfield School of Management), found that 71% of respondents had made informal flexible working arrangements rather than using the formal right to request.

The research found that many employees felt that operating remotely or on reduced hours meant being excluded from promotion opportunities. Cranfield researchers said employees hesitated to formalise arrangements because of the perceived adverse effect on their careers.

“There was generally a belief among respondents that adopting flexible working practices could harm their careers,” said the report. “Visibility was identified as a particular issue.”

Cranfield lecturer Clare Kelliher told Personnel Today: “Because we found a high degree of informality it suggests there is a bigger picture, which goes beyond the issue that is being dealt with [in Walsh’s review].”

Working Families chief executive Sarah Jackson added that promotions were too often offered to office-based employees over those on flexible working arrangements.

“It’s definitely still happening,” she told Personnel Today. “It comes from an old-fashioned assumption by managers that it’s easier as they won’t have to think about rescheduling work.”

Employers present when the report was unveiled last week were concerned that the government-comissioned review into flexible working would not go far enough to address concerns around career progression.

Kim Panton, director of diversity at engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce, told Personnel Today: “The issues we’ve addressed today are not addressed by the government’s right to request review.”

Fiona Poole, HR manager at pharmaceutical company Pfizer agreed the extended right to request would not affect her company, which already offered all employees that right.

Meanwhile, research last week showed that the most common reason for rejecting flexible working requests was an inability to re-organise workloads.

A study by manufacturing employers group EEF found that 57% of 440 companies said granting flexible working would result in a “detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demands”, or an “inability to re-organise work amongst existing staff”.

More than 10% blamed the decision to refuse requests on fear over additional costs.

Walsh said the government needed to do more to highlight best practice on how to manage employee’s workloads when they are out of the office.

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