Tribunal case shows flexible working is not just for women

flexible-working-fathers

For years HR professionals have told managers not to penalise women who want flexible working arrangements, but have we forgotten about working fathers? While it is important that women’s careers are not held back because of their childcare responsibilities, a recent employment tribunal case highlights the risks of overlooking fathers.

Mr Peitzka took PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to the employment tribunal recently in an interesting incidence of reverse discrimination. It is a case that shows just how dangerous gender stereotyped assumptions can be and it is a wake-up call for those who wrongly think of flexibility as a “female issue”.

Mr Peitzka was a successful manager at PwC working in Cardiff. He asked to work flexibly when his marriage began to break down. He explained that he wanted to be able to spend time looking after his daughter. However, his manager, Mr Lewis, seemed incapable of understanding why Mr Peitzka would choose to be involved in childcare if another option was available. Although Mr Lewis had been supportive of several women in the team who worked flexibly for childcare reasons, he told Mr Peitzka that, given his role and level in the business, it was not possible for him to work flexibly. Any formal flexible working request would be refused. He was warned that his progression opportunities would be adversely affected by flexible working.

After Mr Peitzka and his former wife divorced, she relocated with their daughter to Bury St Edmonds. Again Mr Peitzka raised the question of his hours being changed so that he would have time to visit his daughter. Eventually and reluctantly a lesser reduction in his hours was agreed. But unusual conditions, such as a longer trial period, were imposed. Mr Lewis was alleged to have said that Mr Peitzka needed to make up his mind whether he was “Arthur or Martha”.

Not only did Mr Lewis change his attitude towards Mr Peitzka and avoid him during social events, he was instrumental in awarding Mr Peitzka lower grades in his 2012 performance appraisal than he had the previous year. PwC had a sophisticated 360-degree appraisal system that Mr Lewis ignored in order to give Mr Peitzka a lower performance rating. He rated his potential to progress as “a person likely to remain in his current role” when the previous year (having just taken on a new role) he had been rated as “someone with clear potential to take on a more complex role and be promoted, if effective”.

The tribunal looked at the wider context where working on family grounds was suitable for female employees but not for male employees. That view negatively impacted on how Mr Lewis appraised Mr Peitzka. PwC were therefore found to have discriminated against Mr Peitzka on the grounds of his sex and working part time.

Flexible working lessons for employers

Historically, much diversity and equality training has focused on educating managers about the law and guiding them through their company’s internal processes to be followed on recruitment, promotion, at appraisal and pay review time. Many employers now include training on unconscious bias and this case shows the benefit of doing so.

Without doubt, the majority of employees who have asked to work flexibly to date have been women. But Mr Peitzka’s barrister, Robin White of Old Square Chambers, said that cases of reverse discrimination are likely to become more frequent. There are now many partnerships, whether male and female or male couples, where a man may not be the higher earner. It will make financial sense for a man in that situation to be the primary caregiver.

However, this issue should not be seen simply in financial terms. A father has the same right to care for his child as a mother does. While biological considerations may mean that a mother will tend to be the primary carer immediately after a baby is born, this is a matter of choice for the parents and not a decision in which an employer should involve itself.

The Government is introducing shared parental leave for babies due to be born or adopted on or after 5 April next year. The regulations allow parents more flexibility as to how they care for their young children. Employees need to prepare for these changes not simply by updating policies and preparing forms, but much more fundamentally in terms of cultural change if a gender-biased culture exists in their workplace. Employees should not be complacent but properly assess their working culture.

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