HR doubt over parenting law

The new duty allowing parents to request flexible working arrangements from
their employers is good news for many. But some are concerned over the increase
of red tape, reports Ross Wigham

Everyone will be a winner when the new duty for employers to consider
requests from parents to work flexibly becomes law in 2003, claim unions and
pressure groups.

The argument goes that staff will be happier and better parents, employers
will have more productive, motivated staff who are easier to retain, and little
Jack and Daisy will get to be nurtured by both mum and dad.

John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, said, "It is a useful first
step. We predict employers will see real advantages in adopting flexible
working and there will be every reason to extend the new rights to parents of
children older than six."

But not everyone is playing happy families. While most employers are
optimistic that there will be benefits, nagging doubts remain about a rise in
red tape and employment tribunals.

Employers are expected to receive 500,000 extra requests a year for flexible
working from parents following the announcement of the Work and Parents
Taskforce’s proposals at the end of last month. Around 3.8 million parents with
children under the age of six will be eligible to apply for the new working
arrangements, along with an additional 200,000 with disabled children under 18.

The taskforce estimates 80 per cent of requests will be solved during
discussions between employees and employers, and claims only 1 per cent of
requests will be decided by tribunal.

Some employers and representative bodies remain sceptical. David Yeandle,
deputy director of employment policy at the Engineering Employers’ Federation,
is concerned by the government targets and doubts whether the overworked
tribunal system can handle the extra burden.

He warned that Acas will need more resources to mediate in flexible working
disputes if a higher proportion of cases are not to end up in tribunal.

He said, "The Government has set itself a challenge and I think the
targets are ambitious. Past evidence isn’t good and if it wants to achieve that
1 per cent level it will have to put in place a good resource system."

Trade and Industry secretary Patricia Hewitt and the chair of the Work and
Parents Taskforce Sir George Bain both believe the new rules have struck a
workable compromise between employers and staff.

Sir George Bain said, "We have recommended a prudent approach which
will allow employers and employees to become familiar and comfortable with this
new era of law.

"We believe our recommendations are a significant step to change how we
all work in the future."

The problems

While many employers are grateful that parents have not been awarded an
automatic right to work flexibly – they are able to refuse the request if they
show that it would harm the business – there are significant concerns.

Mike Taylor, group HR director for building services company Lorne Stewart,
is worried it will create more red tape for business.

He said, "I think it is absolutely disastrous – the cost to business
doesn’t bear thinking about. For companies who operate shifts it could be
terrible. To set up this bureaucratic audit trail is completely
unnecessary."

Taylor is not alone. Clare Chapman, group HR director of Tesco, said,
"We are concerned that the extent of the legislation is against the spirit
of what it is intended to achieve. We think the way it will be implemented will
remove much of the flexibility employers seek to embrace through existing HR
policies and will produce additional challenges to the way they do
business."

There are also worries about dispute resolution. Digby Jones, head of the
CBI, is concerned that the recommendations will be much more burdensome for
smaller businesses.

The British Chambers of Commerce goes one step further and wants the
Government to introduce a package of support mechanisms to help smaller firms
implement the new legal duty.

David Lennan, director general of the BCC, said, "It is important the
Government provides a support package that meets employers’ needs. General
guidance may be sufficient for many firms, but some will need help in coming to
a decision on a particular case.

"A fully funded consultancy service to guide small firms through
flexible working rights would be cheaper than the tribunal process. This would
demonstrate its commitment to helping small firms rather than hindering them
through regulations."

But Sir George Bain is convinced that 80 per cent of the additional 500,000
predicted requests will be solved in-house. "We don’t want cases to go to
tribunal unless it is totally necessary," he said.

The plaudits

The TUC believes employers will benefit significantly from the Work and
Parents Taskforce’s proposals. It claims firms will improve retention rates,
save money on recruitment costs and get an additional resource of parents back
into work.

There are many HR professionals who agree. Nikki Rolfe, corporate HR
director at L’Oréal, said, "The new DTI proposals acknowledge and
formalise the trend for flexible working for parents. This move is a positive
first step towards striking a balance between work and family life."

Morag Fox, HR director of book retailers BCA, claims her firm provides
strong evidence of the success of flexible working.

"We have had a flexible programme running for several years because we
employ lots of people who have a family. It actually helped us recruit people
in places like Swindon where the labour market is very tight. Companies should
allow their employees to have different starting times and be flexible in their
approach to working parents," she said.

However, despite welcoming the move, some wanted the reforms to go further.
Sue Monk, chief executive of Parents at Work feels some employers could exploit
the system and the tribunals won’t have the power to stop them.

"We fear that parents in low skilled jobs or working in areas of high
unemployment may lose out because they don’t have sufficient clout at work. It
may be necessary to provide a tougher enforcement mechanism," she said.

Morag Fox, HR director, BCA

"We have had a flexible programme running for several
years because we employ lots of people who have a family"

Clare Chapman, group HR director,
Tesco

"We are concerned that the extent of the legislation is
against the spirit of what it is trying to achieve"

Nikki Rolfe, corporate HR
director, L’Oreal

"This move is a positive first step towards striking a
balance between work and family life"

Case study: the fight for the
right to work flexibly

Karen Maloney was a personnel and
payroll officer for construction firm James R Knowles. She had worked there for
four years and came back early from her maternity leave on a part-time basis.

Maloney then asked to continue working part-time, but shortly
afterwards was told she would be replaced with a full-time member of staff. Her
manager told her she would be moved to a different part-time position and job
share arrangements were not available. Despite repeated requests she was not
given details of this position.

An employment tribunal in Liverpool in December 2000 found that
Maloney had been discriminated against on the grounds of her sex, was unfairly
dismissed and awarded her £18,000.

The Equal Opportunities Commission claims the case is an
example of how inflexible employers can be.

New guidelines for flexible
working requests  

– Parents with children under six
will be able to submit a request if they have worked at the firm for six months

– An employee must submit the request in writing

– The firm must then give the request serious consideration,
making a business assessment

– The employer must report back at a meeting within four weeks

– If a request cannot be accepted employers must explain the
business reasons in a letter

– The employee has the right to dispute the decision in-house

– The employee can then go to a tribunal

How companies must justify the
business case

Employers should give clear business
reasons justifying the rejection of a request based on:

– Burden of extra costs to business

– Inability to meet customer demand

– Inability to organise work within available staffing

– Detrimental effect on performance

– Inability to find extra staff

– Other reasons – to be specified

www.dti.gov.uk/er/review.htm

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