Extending flexible working rights could lead to more disputes

Proposals to extend flexible working rights to all workers could prove more trouble than they are worth for employers and their staff and could lead to more workplace disputes, according to Paula Whelan, an employment law partner at Shakespeares.

Flexible working legislation was first implemented in the UK in 2003 – specifically, the Right to Request Scheme – and since then it has had surprisingly little impact in the workplace. Employers report that they have been asked to consider relatively few flexible working applications from employees seeking to reduce their working hours in order to facilitate child care arrangements. Subsequent decisions to extend flexible working rights to employees with children under the age of 16, and then 18, has made little difference.

It is worth noting, however, that many employees already benefit from flexible working arrangements that were agreed as an extension to their standard terms and conditions of employment. For example, parents may have agreed to alter their working hours by a matter of an hour or two at the start or end of each day, in order to fit in with the school run. They tend to be happy with their lot and appreciate the flexibility of their employer. They are less inclined to take things a stage further by applying for the right to reduce their working hours or go part time, because of the effect this would have on their household income.

For smaller businesses, extending flexible working rights to all employees could prove particularly problematic and onerous, especially if more applications to the Right to Request Scheme are made. At a time when many businesses have seen headcount reduce, smaller companies will be aware that adopting job share or part-time working arrangements may not be feasible, and homeworking will also incur additional costs and liabilities.

Existing flexible working legislation sets out clear criteria to help employers determine whether a right to flexible working application should be granted or not. These criteria include a consideration of any additional costs that would be incurred by the business and whether it is possible to re-organise work among existing staff. For smaller employers, such considerations are likely to generate more objections and applications are more likely to be declined as a result.

While employers would be acting within the law by turning down employee applications based on these criteria, they are also aware that such action could have a detrimental impact on workplace morale and could lead to more disputes.

Instead of extending flexible working rights to all, it may have been more sensible for the Government to take steps to support working parents in other ways by increasing tax breaks to offset childcare costs, for example.

For more information on flexible working, see XpertHR’s good practice guide.

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