Ask the expert: Flexible working applications

I EMPLOY an administrative assistant in a busy city centre medical practice and she is due to return from maternity leave shortly. She has called the practice to ask whether it would be possible to return to work on a part-time basis. She was previously full-time but has requested to work three days a week.

Q. I EMPLOY an administrative assistant in a busy city centre medical practice and she is due to return from maternity leave shortly. She has called the practice to ask whether it would be possible to return to work on a part-time basis. She was previously full-time but has requested to work three days a week.

The partners want to be flexible and accommodate the request, but we have recently lost another member of staff who we decided not to replace, leaving the practice with just enough staff to cover the work. Therefore, we would need to recruit another part-time member of staff to cover the days she will not be in the practice.

What are my responsibilities in this situation?

A. There is no automatic right for a woman returning from maternity leave to be granted part-time or flexible working. However, to avoid any potential employment tribunal claim for discrimination, the practice must give the request full consideration and justify why such a request cannot be accommodated.

Employees can request different types of flexible working, including flexi time, job sharing, working from home, term-time working and compressed working hours. Any employee can make a request for flexible working, as long as they are the carer for a child aged 16 or under (under 18 if the child is disabled).

They also need to have at least 26 weeks’ continuous service on the date the application is made and cannot have made another request for flexible working within the last 12 months.

There are strict procedures to be followed when such a request is made. The employee needs to submit their request in writing, stating that it is being made under the statutory right to apply for flexible working.

The following information must be included in their letter:

  • the start date
  • relationship with the child
  • the work proposal
  • how it will impact the practice
  • whether they have made a previous application and if so, when.

Where the practice does not immediately agree to the request, a meeting should be arranged with the employee within 28 days of receipt of the request. The employee has the right to be accompanied during the meeting, with the practice required to notify the employee of the outcome within 14 days. The employee also has the right to appeal the decision.

The practice may refuse the request on one of the following grounds:

  • burden of additional costs
  • detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demands
  • inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff
  • inability to recruit additional staff
  • detrimental impact on quality
  • detrimental impact on performance
  • insufficiency of work during period employee proposes to work
  • planned structural change.

The practice needs to show that there is a genuine reason why the request cannot be accommodated and not simply that it would be an inconvenience to the practice.

One option is to speak to your current part-time staff to see if any of them would like additional hours, or you could advertise for a job-share partner. If you are challenged in the future, ensure you have evidence as to why you were able or unable to support the application. It is also best practice to be consistent in the way you have treated other staff where possible.

The flexible working process is currently under review and it is likely to be extended to all employees who have 26 weeks employment. Any changes, however, will not come into force until 2014.