Flexible working: dads want choice

Archaic it may be, but when most people think of flexible working arrangements, it’s highly likely that mothers spring to mind. But the tide is turning. For a start, employers are being urged to respond to a growing resentment among young fathers who feel they are being unfairly treated when it comes to flexible working.

Their dissatisfaction is highlighted in Working Families’ recent report Time, Health and the Family. The charity’s publication is timely: the Children and Families Bill, which extends the right to request flexible working to all employees and introduces shared parental leave, has just become law after receiving royal assent. And the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills has announced that the extended right to request flexible working will come into force in June (it had been scheduled for April). 

Father time

According to the Working Families research, the legislation could have a big impact on organisations. According to almost one third (31%) of parents, flexible working is currently unavailable to them, with education, retail and healthcare the three sectors least likely to offer it. Fathers in the 26-35 age group are the most resentful; especially those with a single child, and this annoyance can have a negative impact on productivity and motivation.

Working Families’ chief executive Sarah Jackson says many employers still assume the mother is the main carer and should be the first point of call when an issue arises at school or nursery. This concept, she adds, is fast becoming outdated. “The male employee, focused full-time on his work, is becoming a museum-piece,” she says. “Tomorrow’s workers, male and female, will expect time and space for their family lives and responsibilities alongside their work.”

Jackson adds that more than 90% of UK organisations claim to offer at least one form of flexible working which, if true, indicates that employers are not doing enough to communicate internally what options are available. “What’s not known about won’t be asked for, and if resentment builds up about a lack of flexibility, performance will suffer,” she warns. 

Separate research from Hay Group reveals that 63% of UK companies claim to be supporting people to achieve a better work/life balance, up from 51% in a year. 

But how true are these boasts? Caroline Gatrell, a senior lecturer at Lancaster University Management School, has researched fathers and flexible working and says they get a raw deal. She claims that while many employers acknowledge fathers should be able to work more flexibly, they subtly discourage men from making requests to do so. “Many fathers are disappointed when trying to access family-friendly working opportunities because these are refused,” Gatrell says. “They feel resentful if employers are winning awards for ‘paper policies’ that do not work in practice for individual dads.”

“Organisations might have the statistics to support how they help men to work differently but, in many cases, the reality is line managers cannot get their heads around the idea,” she adds. “There is also an assumption that men and women who want to work flexibly are not as committed to their career. But many people only want to work this way for a few years while their children are young.”

Justice for fathers?

Now that the Children and Families Bill has received royal assent, mums and dads are able to share parental leave in their child’s first year. Fathers can also request time off 

to attend antenatal or adoption appointments. In addition, the legislation means every employee with 26 weeks’ continuous service will be able to request flexible working, whether or not they have parenting or carer responsibilities (those in the latter group already have the right).

The legislation states that employers must give reasonable consideration to every application. Employers can use their own HR procedures to consider requests, but they must respond within three months. What will notchange is the ‘one request per 12 months’ rule, and workers still only have a right to request flexible working – not a right for it to be automatically granted.

Emma Whiting, a partner at law firm Addleshaw Goddard, says the current law is overly prescriptive and leads to compensation claims for minor technical breaches of what 

is a strict statutory framework. “The introduction of the concept of reasonableness is likely to cause the biggest issue for employers,” she says. “Currently there is no requirement under the statutory procedure for employers to be reasonable or act in good faith. What will be reasonable will vary from case to case. To refuse a request without any real consideration of its merit will not be reasonable.”

The valid reasons for refusing a request will remain, and include: if a change would increase costs; have a detrimental effect on a company’s ability to meet customer demand; make it difficult to reorganise work among the remaining staff or mean recruiting additional workers; and have a negative effect on quality or performance. “There will be no new right to flexible working, simply a right to have a conversation with employers about flexible working,” points out Heather Platt, a barrister at Riverview Chambers.

Employers must be careful not to give priority to requests from parents as this could fuel discrimination complaints from employees without children. At employee assistance programme provider CiC, which last year was named by Working Families as one of the UK’s most family-friendly small businesses, flexible working requests go beyond childcare and other caring responsibilities, says clinical director Libby Payne. “One-third of flexible working requests now relate to education and training,” she explains.

Legal headaches

Not considering such claims could be a potential headache for employers, lawyers warn. “Prioritising mothers could result in sex discrimination claims from men, and prioritising parents could give rise to age discrimination claims,” says Jennifer Nicol, a partner at law firm Doyle Clayton. “One exception to this is where the employee making the request is disabled. The duty to make reasonable adjustments may mean an employer must agree to their flexible working request in priority to others.”  Acas’s guidance explains more on what employers should do when a member of staff makes a request, to ensure all applications are handled fairly to avoid accusations of discrimination.

But it’s not all about compliance. With the revised law covered widely in the media, many employers are keen to highlight both internally and externally how positively they view requests from all staff to work flexibly. They already understand the business benefits of retaining talented people and reducing absenteeism. Automotive and cycle retailer Halfords Group is one example. It recently ran an internal campaign to ensure its 11,000 staff were aware of its flexible working policy which, says people director Jonathan Crookall, supports workers with and without young children. He says anyone making an application will receive a response based purely on the work needs of their team.

“I’ve not had a single case of someone challenging our policy,” he says. “We also operate flexible start and finish times and have good practice established around sabbaticals. One of our most senior traders is on one now.  He isn’t a recent parent, but we are supporting him on a trip of a lifetime after many years of service.”

Crookall adds that although formal applications for flexible working are recorded at head office, many requests are agreed informally between staff members and their line manager. “We recognise that, sometimes, people may require more flexibility to support their commitments outside of work,” he says. “We offer part-time working, job-sharing, working from home, compressed working hours and shift working.”

Stretching SME's

Smaller companies can worry about the impact on the day-to-day running of their business when individuals ask to change their working patterns, but digital marketing agency MVF has allowed male employees to work flexibly without any problems. One man has altered his office hours to 10am-6pm to accommodate his long commute, and another to do the morning school run. A third changes his hours to fit in his cricket playing, while a semi-professional squash player leaves early when he has a match. “At present, eight fathers work from home two or three days a week so they can spend more time with their families without any effect on their careers,” says MVF’s HR director Amanda Nuttall. 

However, not all SMEs welcome the changes outlined in the Children and Families Bill. Charlie Mullins, CEO and founder of independent plumbing company Pimlico Plumbers, claims the upcoming amendments regarding shared parental leave are another blow to Britain’s small businesses. “By the stroke of a pen, the coalition has massacred small businesses with a universe of bureaucracy that will cause as much turbulence in its administration as in its practice,” he says. “I am not happy that under these new laws, twice as many workers as before can now come and go as they please, regardless of the impact to business.”

He says his views are not tainted by having a majority of male plumbers because most of his office staff are female. “We have several couples who work together within our workforce,” he says. “If everyone at Pimlico Plumbers took advantage of the shared parental leave and several staff took this leave at the same time, how could we function?”

Yet Mullins insists he is pleased to see fathers’ rights are at the heart of the debate. “We usually give new dads time off. My HR manager took a few weeks to bond with his baby and support his wife, and we always encourage this. But when these things become law, in people’s minds they become a ‘right’. Even if a new dad doesn’t want or need to take several weeks off work, the chances are he will do so if Bob on the other side of the office has taken advantage.”

According to Working Families’ Jackson, it’s all about choice. “Shared parental leave is all about giving parents a choice about who works and who cares,” she says. “Current arrangements are heavily loaded towards mothers, and we know there is a real desire from fathers to be more involved in the day-to-day care of their young children.” That, though, is unlikely to be music to the ears of Mullins and other concerned small business owners. 

However, regarding the right to request flexible working, Jackson says the impact might not be as big as some companies fear. “When the right to request for certain groups came in, there were dire warnings from some employers about the floodgates opening and everyone wanting to work flexibly, undermining business,” she says. “In reality, this hasn’t happened.”