Flexible working tribunal rush fears quashed by Sainsbury’s HR chief

Imelda Walsh has moved to calm employer fears that new flexible working laws will lead to a rapid rise in employment tribunal claims.

The Sainsbury’s HR director sent shock waves through organisations last week when her government-commissioned flexible working review recommended parents of children aged 16 or under should have the right to request variable hours.

Business secretary John Hutton accepted the recommendation, while prime minister Gordon Brown announced in his draft Queen’s Speech that it would become law as soon as next April.

However, employers felt the move could cause difficulties.

Andrew Hainge, head of HR at Topps Tiles, said: “In principle, I agree with the extension, but it will cause operational problems. it could be a can of worms.”

But Walsh told Personnel Today: “There is very little evidence that the right to request will lead to more employment tribunals.

“Clearly there may be some bleed through into sex discrimination, but there would have been anyway [with informal flexible working requests].”

Employment relations minister Pat McFadden urged employers to follow the eight reasons for which they can legally deny requests. These are already in operation, and include “burden of additional costs” and “inability to reorganise work among existing staff”.

He said: “What an employer has to do is show they’ve considered the request properly before saying no. If they have considered it, in line with the regulations, there is no need for this to result in an employment tribunal.”

Walsh was also adamant that the new right, which covers an extra 4.5 million workers, would not cause much extra paperwork for employers.

“I’m not sure employers will be inundated with requests just because we’ve said a right now exists,” she said. “It doesn’t mean people will be asking to reduce their hours.”

The legal right to request flexible working is currently only available to parents of children under seven and registered carers.

The government has said it will begin a 12-week consultation on the extension with interested parties ‘soon’.

In this clip, Joe Glavina explains why their could be more tribunal claims and employment lawyer Catherine Barker makes the point the managers’ affiliation naturally lies with the business and not the employee.

Be prepared: what employers can do

Employers have been urged to proactively prepare for the new right to request flexible working rather than waiting for the requests to come flooding in.

Mary Mercer, principal consultant at the Institute for Employment Studies think-tank, admitted the Walsh review had gone further than employers expected, but insisted that if they prepared properly for new legislation they would have nothing to fear.

“Employers can start to look at how their work is scheduled, what the busy times of the month or year are, and start to think about what flexible working arrangements might suit them as a business,” she told Personnel Today.

Mercer also urged HR to encourage line managers to have open discussions with their teams on what sort of flexibility might work for them.

“A lot of whether a request will be accepted or rejected depends on the line manger’s working patterns and views, so HR has a role to play in auditing requests that have been turned down, particularly when it comes to requests between men and women,” she said.

HR opinion

Andrew Hainge, head of HR, Topps Tiles

“You can still say no to a request but you have to go through a whole process and if staff don’t like the outcome they can appeal and that could lead to grievances.”

Bronwen Philpott, director of HR, Monarch Airlines

“Wherever there is more legislation, there is always more paperwork, and more process to go through. Once you have to start going formal, everyone gets a bit more wary – but flexible working is a generally a win-win.”

David Fairhurst, chief people officer, McDonald’s

“The suggested cut-off age of 16 feels appropriate, because it is at this age that young people can rightly begin to think of themselves as adults, and their parents should be wanting to make them increasingly responsible for running their own lives.”

Gillian Hibberd, corporate director (people and policy), Buckinghamshire County Council

“The extension is another example of government interference where it is not necessary or welcomed by employers. Most employers are now embracing the strong business case for flexible working. Interventions of this kind only act to stifle the innovation that is developing and can lead to increases in litigation.”

David Yeandle, deputy director for employment policy, EEF

“Because more requests will be rejected, there is always a danger there will be more cases at employment tribunal. If the government rushes into this legislation for quasi-political reasons it may find that the legislation that has been working well will not be quite the same.”

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