What does flexible working mean?
Flexible working means offering your employees alternative work patterns and arrangements including reduced hours, permission to work from home etc. There are many good reasons for providing flexible working arrangements. For example:
- It promotes equality of opportunity in employment for many people; especially for women and people who have disabilities
- There is evidence to show that most employers in Northern Ireland believe that employees should be able to achieve a satisfactory work/life balance, and that the provision of flexible working arrangements either has no negative impacts on their businesses or that it delivers positive benefits, such as increased employee motivation, commitment and productivity, less absenteeism and better employee relations.
- Having flexible working practices often encourages staff retention and cuts down on recruitment costs.
Many employees enjoy legally enforceable employment rights which give them entitlements to flexible working arrangements. It would, therefore, be unwise to make snap decisions, especially refusals, about your employees’ requests for flexible working as you must follow legally enforceable procedures and/or provide reasoned, fair and justifiable decisions.
This does not mean that the needs and rights of employees will necessarily over-ride the needs of an employer’s business, or vice versa. But the nature of an employee’s legal rights will often require an employer to weigh their business needs against those of their employee in order to reach an appropriate and proportionate balance between the two.
Getting started in 6 steps:
1. Develop an equal opportunities policy
This declares that you are committed to promoting equality of opportunity in employment for all persons.
2. Develop a flexible working policy and procedure
This which declares that you are committed to providing flexible working arrangements and fair and non-discriminatory treatment to those employees who use them, or wish to use them. The document should set out your procedure for considering employees’ requests for flexible working arrangements and for implementing the decisions that you make. The procedure should also meet minimum statutory requirements.
3. Inform employees about the policy and procedure
Include your flexible working policy and procedure in your employees’ handbook, or on the workplace intranet or noticeboards.
4. Provide training to your managers/decision-makers
Training should provide them with an understanding of your legal responsibilities and their own responsibilities under the relevant policies and procedures.
5. Review recruitment and selection procedures
This ensures that when a new job is being developed that the possibility of it being done under a flexible working arrangement is considered.
6. Monitor and review the operation of your flexible working policy and procedure
This should be done periodically, for example once every three years.
What is basic good practice? (step by step)
The task of complying with the network of legal rights which employees enjoy can best be achieved if employers and managers understand their responsibilities, are committed to fulfilling them and go about making decisions in a reasoned, consistent and fair manner. You should try to make this happen by establishing a framework or environment in which decisions can be made accordingly.
The Equality Commission strongly recommends that you take the following steps to establish such a framework or environment:
Step 1 - Develop and implement an Equal Opportunities Policy and a Harassment Policy which acknowledges your commitment to promoting equality of opportunity in employment to all persons and to providing your employees with a good and harmonious working environment in which they will be treated with dignity and respect and not subjected to harassment.
Step 2 - Develop and implement a policy on flexible working which acknowledges your commitment to providing flexible working arrangements, and to providing fair and non-discriminatory treatment to those employees who avail of them, or wish to avail of them.
Step 3 - Establish a systematic and objective procedure for considering employees’ requests for flexible working arrangements and for implementing the decisions that are made.
Step 4 - Inform employees about the policies; for example, by including them in the employees’ handbook, or on the workplace intranet or noticeboard.
Step 5 - Provide training to all managers so that they understand their employers’ responsibilities in relation to these legal rights and their own responsibilities under the relevant policies and procedures.
Step 6 - Amend recruitment and selection procedures to build in a stage where consideration will be given to allowing for flexible working arrangements when developing the particular job structures of each post (i.e. where, how and when each job will be performed) and in developing the corresponding job descriptions and personnel specifications.
Step 7 - Monitor and review the operation of the policy and procedure periodically; for example, every three years, or some other period that the employer considers appropriate.
Reasonable adjustments for disabled employees
There are occasions where the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees is also in effect a duty to provide (reasonable) flexible working arrangements for the disabled employees who need them.
For example, you allow a disabled person to work flexible hours to enable them to have additional breaks to overcome fatigue arising from their disability. Further examples are available on page10-11 of our Flexible working - Guide for Employers (pdf) and pages 83-90 of our Disability Code of Practice for Employers (pdf)
How can discrimination be avoided?
- Follow the flexible working policy and procedures that you have established, apply the policy consistently and keep a written record of the decision-making process
- Keep an open mind and give serious, genuine consideration to the employee’s request and consider alternative arrangements
- Check that the information upon which the decision will be based is factually correct and only consider information that is so
- Give considerably more weight to those options that are genuinely essential for the operation of the organisation compared to those that are merely convenient or desirable.
What should I not do?
- Refuse to consider requests solely on the basis of legal technicalities alone
- Assume that because a particular option is more convenient or desirable for the organisation that it is genuinely necessary
- Treat cost or expense as the sole deciding factor; although, it is legitimate to consider the relative financial costs of various options along with other factors (like those listed below)
- Discriminate against employees on any of the statutory anti-discrimination grounds.
Are there valid reasons to refuse flexible working?
There is no exhaustive list of business-related or other legitimate factors that you might take into account when balancing your own needs or aims against those of an employee, but they might include the ones listed below:
- the burden of additional costs
- detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
- inability to re-organise work among existing staff
- inability to recruit additional staff
- detrimental impact on quality
- detrimental impact on performance
- insufficient volumes of work during periods the employee proposes to work
- planned structural changes
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