Why flexible working doesn't work

Last updated: May 3rd, 2011
Feature by Sarah Coles

Flexible working is so fashionable that even the Prime Minister's wife is doing it. It seems it's the answer to everyone's problems – not only does it help employees juggle their work/life balance, employers can also use it to reduce costs.

So it's hardly a surprise that the new coalition government plans to expand the right to request flexible working to all employees.

There's only one minor problem: it doesn't work.

In theory, if you've been in your job for a year or more and have kids under the age of 16, or a disabled child under 18, you have the right to request flexible working.

However, the truth is the legislation doesn't give employees that many rights; it simply sets out a procedural framework.

While there are only a few grounds on which employers can refuse, they are vague enough to cover almost any employee. It means that in many instances those who request flexible working are refused.

This is something that Susan Wade, a 37-year-old manager at a media company in London, found out the hard way. She applied for flexible working after the birth of her second daughter last year.

"I was refused on the grounds that it wasn't suitable, given my role and the fact there were a lot of changes in the organisation," she says. "All they had to claim was that it would be detrimental to the business – and that's a very flexible concept." 

If your request is refused, you can't challenge the decision, you can only claim that the procedure wasn't followed properly, and even then the maximum compensation is only about £2,500.

Although, for women returning to work, there may be opportunities for redress under sex 
discrimination laws.

Lawyers have had some success arguing this case because as women tend to have more childcare responsibilities than men, making women work long or inflexible hours is indirect discrimination.

Constructive dismissal claim

The other alternative avenue is a constructive dismissal claim. Francis Strickley, an associate with law firm Thomas Eggar, says: "You could argue that your request wasn't considered fully and the relationship of trust broke down, forcing you to leave. But it can be difficult to prove."

Even if your request is accepted, it doesn't mean the battle's over. You might achieve the flexible working life you desire, but it could leave your career in tatters.

In a survey of female solicitors by King's College London and the Association of Women Solicitors, 50% said those who work flexibly are seen as not being serious about their careers, and 44% said it had a negative effect on promotion prospects.

They felt less satisfied by their careers and more insecure in their job.

Lesley Browning, a 41-year-old former lawyer from the North West, went part-time after the birth of her baby. She was on the fast track before she got pregnant, but decided to work three days a week on her return.

"I worked crazy hours and I didn't want to miss my son's childhood, so I went part-time," she says. "But the moment I did, my boss gave all my best clients to other colleagues.

"He took every opportunity to undermine me, and I was passed over for promotion. Eventually, I decided I'd had enough, and resigned."

Lesley is just one of many women who were forced to give up work after having children, when in fact work gave up on them.

There's an argument that flexible working will carry less of a stigma when the right is extended to the whole workforce.

Jackson says: "We know flexible working works best when it becomes part of the way we work, not just a concession to particular groups. Currently, parents may face a backlash from their colleagues who want to know why they don't qualify for flexible working.

"The change will mean it becomes part of the culture rather than a concession for a particular group of employees."

However, Liz Morris, a director of Mayfield Associates, believes it's going to take more than just legislation. "At the moment fathers have the right to request flexible working, but they don't take it up," she says.

"It's considered even less socially acceptable for a man to want flexible work. Legislation alone isn't going to solve this. Change has to start with the culture of the organisation."

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Your Comments

I have changed my hours part time since having my first son and I am lucky that the area I work in I can work term time hours so I can have time off during the holidays to look after my two boys aged 4 years and 1 years old. My boss was brillient very understanding and made me still feel valued. She left 12 months ago and my new boss is not so understanding.

Meetings are arranged in the afternoons and sometimes at short notice (i work morning and pay for childcare for my younger child) also 'training days' and 'team building' all also all day and more often than not I have to send my apologies as I have no one else available in my family to support with childcare. My boss says I have to be more flexible but my hours have been agreed and are permanent so it's a nightmare at the moment. Feel very alone at work and stuck now as the job looks good on paper but I'm so unhappy with the stigma around my working hours