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Hot topic: Changes to flexible working law

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Legislation to allow all employees to request flexible working came into effect on 30 June. In part one of this Hot Topic Jane Fielding, head of employment at international law firm Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co explains how HR will need to prepare.

It is debatable whether extending the right to request flexible working to all employees will really trigger a tidal wave of applications. A 2012 CIPD survey indicates that 63% of workplaces already allow all employees to request flexible working and they have not been deluged.

For most employees, it’s about balancing flexibility with affordability and, particularly during a recession, not everyone’s family finances can support reduced hours, for example. 

That doesn’t mean the extended rights won’t have an impact on the workplace and HR does need to be gearing up for the changes.  As well as extending the right to request, the new regime gives more flexibility in handling the request. It replaces a fairly prescriptive procedure with a duty to consider requests in a “reasonable manner”, generally within three months. 

Managers will need guidelines for dealing with requests so the situation doesn’t drift, leaving the individual hanging and reducing the time to look properly at the request (and any appeal). The statutory business reasons for rejecting a request won’t change.

Prioritising requests is also likely to be a challenge. Employers don’t have to make value judgments  – many organisations do not require someone to say why they want the change. However, firms should bear in mind how this right fits with discrimination legislation.

Most employers are familiar with the risk of indirect sexual discrimination if a woman with childcare responsibilities is refused a change in working pattern. But if requests do start to come from a wider range of staff (such as male employees wanting to look after children or older employees seeking to wind down towards retirement), employers need to treat those even-handedly if they want to avoid discrimination claims. There will be some difficult judgment calls if not all requests can be accommodated.

Read part two of hot topic featuring the views of Daisy Group HRD Marie Wheatley here.