The right to request flexible working is now available to any employee who has been employed by their employer for at least 26 weeks, regardless of whether they are parents or not (this was not the case when the right was first introduced). It is not hard to see why however, that this is a statutory right which is particularly well utilised by working parents.
Parents do not receive special treatment following maternity leave
Perhaps surprisingly, once employees have returned to work after having their children and taking maternity (or adoption) and/or parental leave they have no special legal rights or protections as parents in the workplace. Instead, they must utilise general legal rights which apply to everyone, regardless of family status.
What is flexible working?
There is no formal definition of flexible working and it’s really about an employer and an employee finding a way of working that suits both of their needs. Examples of changes which might be considered flexible working include: working from home, job sharing, flexitime or term-time only working, starting or finishing at a different time, working part-time by reducing your days/hours or just being given guaranteed shifts that fit around your childcare.
What does the law say about parent’s right to flexible working?
It should be noted at the outset that no employee has the absolute right to insist on being allowed to work flexibly; the legal entitlement is only to ask your employer to consider your request reasonably.
On the flip side, an employer can only say no on certain specified grounds relating to business needs. They cannot for example, have a blanket policy which says we don’t allow flexible working in certain roles or we can’t let anyone else work flexibly as we have too many people doing so already. They must be able to prove their business needs and not merely make assumptions about the impact of what you are proposing.
Is flexible working right for me?
Affording childcare and fitting work around the school day and holidays can be a real challenge for working parents. Flexible working is often hailed as the solution to the tricky question of the work/life balance act which gets harder once children come along.
However, before parents decide to ask for flexible working you should bear in mind that there can be downsides. For further reading on the pros and cons of working flexibly, read our article that examines both the advantages and disadvantages of flexible working.
Does your employer have the right attitude towards flexible working?
In some workplaces the culture is not as friendly towards flexible working for parents as it might be. While employers who actively champion flexible working will be attractive potential employers, it has been shown that a positive attitude to flexible working increases employee loyalty and reduces turn-over so jobs at these organisations may not be so easy to come by.
The government previously said it was considering introducing a duty on all employers to make all jobs available for flexible working, but to date, this has not been implemented. However, employees are hopeful that in the future these proposals will be put into practise.
It will also depend what team you work in and what your role is as to how easy it is to convince your employer that you should be allowed to work flexibly. But, whether or not your employer actively promotes flexible working, you are entitled to ask for it.
How should parents request flexible working?
If you are already an employee who has been employed for 26 weeks or more and have not made a request to work flexibly in the last 12 months, then you can ask your employer to consider letting you work flexibly.
As a request can only be filed once every 12 months, it’s important to properly plan your approach For more information on the process of making a request, see our article outlining helpful tips for making a flexible working request
Alternatively, you may currently be on maternity, adoption or other parental leave and be considering your options when it comes to returning to work. It’s best to give yourself plenty of time before your return date to try and get the arrangements you want in place, so you will not have to start the process of asking for flexible working while you are still at home.
It is always worth suggesting a trial period if you think your employer may be nervous about letting you work flexibly, so that you can show it can work to everyone’s satisfaction. It may also be helpful to talk informally to colleagues first to try and get their thoughts on changes you are proposing, and it will impact the work force.
Sex discrimination considerations
Even if you are not strictly eligible to make a flexible working request, if, as a parent, you need to make changes to your working patterns in order to enable you to look after your child, you should still ask your employer to consider your request. An employer who refuses to do so risks a sex discrimination claim, in certain circumstances.
Anecdotally, men who make flexible working requests are more likely to have these turned down, suggesting that it is still less socially and culturally acceptable for men to share childcare responsibilities in some organisations. This may also be challenged on the grounds of sex discrimination i.e. that an employer would look more favourably on a flexible working request from a female employee.
Other employment rights that may be helpful to parents
As a parent there are other statutory rights that you may need to call upon to help you juggle work and childcare commitments, including the statutory right to take unpaid time off for family emergencies to do with dependants. However, this is intended to allow alternative arrangements to be made and is not a right to allow employees to take an indefinite period of time off to care for their dependants.
Employees with at least one year’s service can apply to take a total of 18 weeks unpaid parental leave up to their child’s 18th birthday. This must usually be taken in blocks of one week (not single days, unless the child is disabled) and no more than four weeks can be taken per year.
For more information on a parents’ right to flexible working, please do not hesitate to get in touch with our team of employment law specialists who will be able to further advise on your unique situation.