Seven in 10 organisations now offer part-time working, according to latest research. Even more reassuringly the study, carried out by the British Chambers of Commerce, found that well over half of these businesses are reaping benefits such as improvements in employee relations, staff retention and productivity.
The problem is that people who request to work part-time still risk being shown the door by many employers. “Employees often come to us saying they have been kicked out as a result of a restructure or redundancy situation that miraculously occurs when they want to come back part-time or perhaps six months later,” reports Daniel Naftalin, partner at Mischcon de Reya.
“In some sectors, it’s almost an unwritten rule that asking to go part-time is a guarantee of being written off in the near future,” he says.
Tony Hymans-Parish, partner in employment group at Rawlinson Butler, adds: “Many employers, including a client I visited recently, still refer to certain roles being ‘full time’ without really thinking about the different ways the job can be done and, unfortunately, some employers do prefer to close their eyes to the possibilities.”
Even those who do manage to secure a part-time post may be discriminated against, notably in terms of access to training, career progression and pay. Employment lawyers agree that this isn’t usually intentional and can be a sector-wide problem. For example, industries with high numbers of part-timers, such as retail and catering, traditionally have lower than average rates of pay than others.
Alternatively, the discrimination can be a result of cultural attitudes within individual organisations. “There is definitely still a belief in some workplaces that to go part-time is to opt out of being a seriously committed employee,” says Mike Emmott, adviser on employee relations at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, whose latest employee attitudes survey found that part-timers are less likely than full-timers to have had a performance appraisal in the past year.
“Where it occurs, it’s certainly not aggressive discrimination, but an assumption that if you go part-time, you probably can’t be all that bothered about your job.”
Guy Guinan, employment partner at Halliwells, agrees. “The biggest problem I’ve come across, in the past couple of years, is employers still mistakenly thinking that a part-timer would be less interested in career progression. It’s not advertent discrimination, but more of a case of, ‘We hadn’t realised you would consider that option’.”
The current culture of ‘presenteeism’, whereby long hours are rewarded, is almost certainly contributing to such perceptions of part-timers. This – often unpremeditated – discrimination against part-timers also manifests itself in that many part-timers feel they are expected to do a full-time job in fewer hours. When they can’t, they are regarded as less efficient than their full-time counterparts. Part-timers have also traditionally been given less complex projects in many organisations, leaving them unable to demonstrate their abilities and potential.
Although there is legislation protecting part-timers, there is little case law to date, leaving many people to conclude that the law may not be effective in this area.
The Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000 was the first law specifically aimed at protecting this group of people.
While this stipulates that part-time status should no longer constitute a barrier to promotion, training, pay, profit-sharing or share options schemes, holiday entitlement and career break schemes, pursuing a claim requires an employee to identify a full-time counterpart to prove their case. That person must have a similar contract, work for the same employer and have a similar levels of skills and experience. In small companies, this is no mean feat.
“Because the regulations are not practical in reality, they have not exactly been ground-breaking,” says Angela Gorton, head of the employment law department at Fox Hayes.
The second key piece of legislation relating to part-timers is the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, simply because part-timers are more likely to be female than male. But again, few claims have succeeded because of the employee’s need to find a counterpart to compare themselves with although in this situation the comparator must be male.
The Flexible Working (Procedural Requirements) Regulations 2002 – and the relevant extension to these regulations the Flexible Working (Eligibility, Complaints and Remedies) (Amendment) Regulations 2006, which came into force in April 2007 – are also relevant. “The original legislation gave carers of young children the right to request flexible working, while the subsequent legislation extended this to include carers of adults,” explains Gorton. “One of the requests that can be made is to work part-time.”
But, she adds: “Employers don’t automatically have to grant the request and many people do get turned down. Even among employers who do usually grant requests, many don’t advertise it because they are terrified there will be a mass influx of further requests.”
It doesn’t help that many employees – and indeed employers – are unaware of legislation relating to part-time working. Gorton argues that many part-timers are less likely to find out about laws concerning them or make a claim, because they themselves have come to think of themselves as less significant than full-timers.
However, she is upbeat about the future treatment for part-timers. “While employers have been reluctant to embrace part-time working in the past, the situation is definitely getting better. In my view, larger organisations are still much more ahead of smaller ones. But even in some of the bigger ones, there is still some way to go.”
A good starting point is to have a formal written part-time working policy and, better still, a work-life balance policy as well. Jan England, managing director of England Marketing, adds that employers would do well to look to organisational attitudes within their business in an attempt to eradicate negative perceptions of part-time working. “I think as employers, we can do more to help ourselves,” she says. “We just need to change our working culture.”
Guinan points out that employers should steer clear of making inadvertent assumptions. “Make sure vacancies and training are not only available, but well publicised,” he says. “And, don’t assume a post needs a full-time worker, as there may be scope for job-share arrangements.”
Employers should not forget the business benefits of embracing part-time working, he adds. Indeed, Gillian Nissim, who last year founded WorkingMums – a jobsite for professional women looking for part-time job opportunities – says a growing number of employers are recognising that two people bringing different talents to a single job can make a positive difference to the bottom line.
“It can also save on travelling costs to take on more than one person if the job is based at more than one location,” she adds. “Meanwhile, for many small and medium-sized enterprises, part-timers are a way of getting in the skills and experience they need in an affordable way.”
Businesses can be almost entirely staffed by part-timers. Lawyers Direct is made up almost exclusively of part-time workers. James Knight, managing director of the company, says: “I run a commercial law firm where our 65 solicitors all work part-time, except me. As a direct result, over the past five years, we have been inundated by thousands of applicants. This has meant we have been able to recruit an incredibly strong team.”