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There’s no doubt that the dynamics of the UK working population are changing. People are living and working longer, resulting in what is referred to as the 'sandwich generation' comprised of individuals with caring responsibilities for both children and elderly relatives.

Given the changing nature of the UK's working citizens, it is hardly surprising that more individuals are both considering and pursuing flexible working arrangements. But with the need for flexible working becoming increasingly more commonplace amongst employees, managers and business executives are finding the task of managing flexible working requests both a challenge and – in many cases – a trouble-shooting exercise to avoid setting a negative precedent for the rest of the company.

Although an employer’s reasons for refusing to grant a flexible working request may be legitimate from a business perspective, it is imperative that any grounds for refusal are approached and communicated in a reasonable manner with the employee who has submitted the query.

Following our nationwide series of Employee Engagement seminars which covered a wide range of topics from wellbeing to flexible working practices, employers sat down with Paul Ball, Partner at Gateley Plc’s Leeds office and asked the following questions to find out more about how to effectively manage flexible working requests.

Do I need to understand the reason behind a flexible working request?

It helps to have an idea about why an employee has requested a change to their working pattern, because with that knowledge comes a better understanding of what the potential implications might be should you refuse the request.

You also need to determine whether the employee’s request falls within the statutory regime, or is simply based on their wish for you to alter their working patterns or hours within their contract of employment.

If the request is not one that falls within the statutory regime, then in theory you can simply refuse to even consider the request. However, you need to consider whether this approach will help you engage with your employees.

How do I know when a request adheres to the statutory regime?

There are a few requirements for a flexible wording request to be valid:

  • The employee needs to have 26 weeks’ service and not have made a flexible working request in the last 12 months

  • Be in writing

  • State that it is a request under the statutory procedure

  • Specify the change the employee wants and when they want it to start

  • Say what impact the employee believes the change will have on you and how any such effect could be dealt with

  • Say whether the employee has made a previous application for flexible working and if so, when

  • Be dated

If I receive a valid flexible working request, how should I manage it?

All requests should be handled in a reasonable manner. It’s important to identify whether the request meets the requirements of the flexible working regime. If it does, then you should meet with the employee to discuss it, consider alternatives, and if necessary provide any legitimate reasons for refusal. You should then inform the employee of their right to appeal your decision should they disagree with it.

If the request seems doable from the outset, then you should confirm your agreement to the requested change, agree to a date from which the change would be implemented and ensure that you document this alteration along with the employee’s acceptance of it. Although this can be done without a meeting, a direct face-to-face conversation is a sensible opportunity to iron out any minor points and finalise the agreed changes to the working arrangements.

In all other cases, either where your ability to accommodate the flexible working request needs further exploration or where you determine legitimate business reasons to refuse the request, then you must have a meeting with the employee to discuss it and reach a mutual agreement.

The overall process must be completed within three months of the date when the initial flexible working request was submitted. However, this period may be extended by mutual agreement of both parties.

How should I conduct the meeting?

ACAS has issued helpful guidance on www.acas.org.uk about how employers can best conduct meetings in response to flexible working requests.

Adopting a ‘can do’ approach is not only an effective way to engage an employee, but also minimises the risk of negative repercussions should you need to decline the request. It’s certainly helpful to keep an open mind when seeking to identify precisely why the individual wants to make the change to their working pattern and what impact they believe this alteration could have on their performance, their colleagues and their customers. This approach will also help you identify and recommend alternative arrangements that the employee will be willing to accept.

When managing a flexible working request - particularly those which you are unable to accommodate - you should continuously document the process. Should the matter escalate to an employment tribunal claim, having a detailed record of any discussions, meetings and recommended adjustments will serve as evidence to support how you gave serious and genuine consideration to the request and had legitimate reasons for refusing it.

Don’t be afraid to adjourn the meeting whilst you consider any aspect of the request and whether it may be one that you can agree to. Doing this is far more preferable then simply rejecting the request in the meeting. It demonstrates that you have given the request careful consideration before ultimately deciding that you are unable to accept it.

Read here for part 2 of this series, where Paul Ball continues to answer questions on how to manage flexible working requests.

About our Contributor

Paul is a Partner in the Leeds office of Gateley Plc. Part of Gateley’s national Employment Team of more than 25 specialist employment lawyers, Paul has over 20 years’ experience advising employers on all aspects of employment law, in particular discrimination issues, contractual issues arising on business transfers, as well as significant experience of delivering in-house client training. For any advice on the latest employment law updates and how they may impact your business, you can contact him by phone on 011 326 16793.

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