Handling flexible working requests

office workers around a round tableAll employees now have the legal right to request flexible working. Kate Palmer explains what this means for an employer.

Every job should be advertised as available for flexible working, a watchdog has recommended.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission says that offering flexible hours to all job applicants will help to combat pay disparities between men and women, while increasing job opportunities for people with disabilities.

The Commission also proposed that businesses should be made to collect annual statistics that set out their pay gaps for ethnic minorities and disabled people.

So what do small business owners need to know?

Employees with 26 weeks’ service have the statutory right to request flexible working. The law on these requests changed in 2014, and there is no longer a need for the employee to be a parent or a carer in order to have their request considered.

The practical effect of this change is that an employee can request flexible working under the statutory right for any reason at all. It doesn’t have to be in order for them to spend time with their children – as is often seen when women return to work after maternity leave – or so that they can drop their children off at school, for example.

In reality, therefore, the employee can bring any reason to the table when asking for a change to their working hours. This prevents the employer from asserting that their reasons are not valid. Asking for a change to working hours to be able to go to a weight-loss class is therefore as valid a reason as making a request to look after children.

Can I refuse flexible working requests?

It is possible to refuse a flexible working request, but the reason for refusal must be based on your business requirements, rather than anything to do with the reasons given by the employee.

The grounds on which a request can be refused are prescribed by law, meaning that if the reason does not fall into that group, it will not be a valid refusal. Some of these reasons are: the burden of additional costs; being unable to reorganise work among existing staff; or the result of approving the request causing a negative impact on quality, performance or ability to meet customer demand.

The reason you use must represent the factual situation in your organisation  otherwise, the employee can make a claim to an employment tribunal that the refusal was based on incorrect facts.

After having considered the request, which would normally include meeting with the employee, you need to inform them of the decision in writing, and this should include the refusal reason. There is no statutory right to appeal the decision, but the statutory code of practice on flexible working indicates that if the employee appeals, you should hold an appeal process.

About the author

Kate Palmer is head of advisory and equality at Peninsula.