By Heather McKinlay
With government plans afoot to make flexible working a day one right, and several high profile cases in the media where mothers have won big pay-outs for sex discrimination on their return to work following maternity leave…it got us thinking where that leaves us all in this post-covid world…? Can employers still say no to a flexible working request?
Chloe Daly, a senior member of British Airways cabin crew, requested to reduce her hours by 25 per cent and to work on set days following the birth of her first child. Her application was denied as bosses felt it would ‘hurt staff morale’ and mean more work for her colleagues. She won her case and was awarded a £40,000 pay-out.
Alice Thompson, a sales manager at a central London estate agency, was refused an earlier finish time to pick up her daughter from nursery, and felt she had no other option than to resign. She took her former employer to tribunal and the judge awarded her almost £185,000 for loss of earnings, loss of pension contributions, injury to feelings and interest.
Dr Katie Lidster, hadn’t even requested flexible working yet was told her role ‘no longer existed’ when she returned to work. She was offered a part time post with diminished responsibilities, however a role was advertised internally almost identical to her original one – which then went to the person who had been covering her maternity leave. She was awarded a £23,000 pay-out.
As recently as 2019, an average of one in three flexible working requests was actually turned down by employers - we would advise that businesses try and make accommodations so if they can't approve they can at least offer an alternative, as this would be better than declining. By law your employer can still turn down your flexible working request if there’s a valid business reason for doing so, as outlined by ACAS, such as:
it will cost too much
they cannot reorganise the work among other staff
they cannot recruit more staff
there will be a negative effect on quality
there will be a negative effect on the business’ ability to meet customer demand
there will be a negative effect on performance
there’s not enough work for you to do when you’ve requested to work
there are planned changes to the business, for example, your employer plans to reorganise or change the business and thinks the request will not fit with these plans
However, now with the ongoing global pandemic having seen up to 86% of people working from home at some point during the last 18 months, the government is taking the view that flexibility should be the new normal. Which begs the questions, do employers now have any leg to stand on if they still want to say no? And, what more can we be doing for women returning to work, to ensure their needs are understood and met, as well as balancing the demands of business?
Flexible working from day one would mean that it's not necessarily new mums that would benefit but perhaps people starting new roles with existing kids or maybe people with caring responsibilities such as elderly parents. We would encourage employers to build that conversation into their interview process - not in order to decline people, but to ensure both parties are happy with the expectations.
Here we’ve put together a few tips that should help any employee navigate their post-baby return to work, and also any employer to support returning employees:
Communication is key, its best practice to have a mat plan agreed beforehand however, remember to be flexible. Things change. What someone might have planned or thought they could do pre-baby can be very different post-baby. If possible set up check-in calls before any official return to work, this will not only make the process less daunting, but it will allow you to agree arrangements that work for all.
Set realistic expectations for everyone involved, and be understanding - it might be fine to agree to look over a document on a non-working day, but this isn’t always the case. Babies unfortunately don’t understand ‘please give me a second to reply to this email’…! And just because it is a working day, bear in mind there may be other considerations going on in the background such as nursery drop off stress, the latest sickness bug, and so on.
Ensure you make time in the working day for a coffee, a catch up, a chat. Even if it can’t always be in person this will strengthen working relationships and ensure no-one feels isolated or left out.
And finally - always be kind. Anyone with kids is essentially working double time so its not always possible to work at the same previous pace. Celebrate any wins, no matter how small!
About Heather McKinlay
Heather works as an HR Business Associate at Second Chapter where she supports mainly with recruitment, general HR administration and also social media postings. She has had a varied career so far spanning across retail, hospitality, marketing and communications, but always with people at the heart of it. Heather lives in Sheffield with her husband, daughter and rescue cat George.