Employers: When you say a job is flexible, make sure you really mean it—or face the consequences.
Published: 24 Jan 2020
By Julia Waltham, Joint Head of Policy & Influencing, Working Families.
Our recent Modern Families Index found that 57% of parents who say they will have to remain in their current job because they are not certain they could find similar flexibility elsewhere.
It’s clear that advertising more jobs on a part-time and flexible basis would support parents to find work, stay in work, and—crucially—support their career progression. So when the Government indicated it might require employers to recruit on a flexible basis, we argued that it should. But we also argued that it is vital that employers think through the kinds of flexibility that would and wouldn’t work in roles prior to advertising them.
The importance of this was driven home to us by what happened to Sarah*, a mother of two who contacted our Legal Advice Service for help. Sarah applied for a full-time, senior role that stated that there was the ‘option of some flexible working’ on the job advert. So far, so good.
When she was offered the job, Sarah explained she was currently working a 28-hour week—term time only—and asked what flexibility was on offer, whilst making it clear she was willing to work full-time if that was required. The HR lead agreed to explore what the organisation could offer, adding that they ‘don’t just talk the talk about flexible working’.
The organisation came back and offered Sarah 28 hours across 5 days, which she accepted, following up in writing to set out her discussed work pattern. It was during this exchange that Sarah disclosed that her partner had a disability.
Upon learning this, the company withdrew the job offer.
After hearing that Sarah’s partner was disabled, the organisation decided that a part-time pattern ‘wouldn’t work’ (despite initially agreeing it would). They said she should have raised her preference to work part-time at the interview stage.
In response, Sarah agreed to work full-time. The company said the job offer was still withdrawn, because of their concerns about her ability to manage work alongside her caring responsibilities.
Sarah—quite rightly—felt she had been treated unfairly. The employer had effectively weaponised her flexible working request to withdraw their job offer, and then said she couldn’t do the job full-time either because of her caring responsibilities.
Worryingly, when she raised this with them, the company indicated they intended to be more cautious in the future about advertising jobs flexibly and to ask candidates at the interview stage if they want to work flexibly.
Of course, this isn’t what we want to happen. We absolutely want employers to be advertising jobs flexibly. But they need to have really thought about what will and won’t work in each role (and, ideally, state that in the job ad too) – as opposed to advertising jobs ‘flexibly’ without thinking through job design and without the willingness to have the job done ‘differently’. Crucially, in this example, the best candidate for the job was encouraged to apply because of the organisation’s apparent commitment to flexibility at the point of hire.
As for Sarah, after talking to Working Families she approached ACAS and has received a substantial settlement from the organisation in question. The organisation also agreed to review its flexible working policies so that they are in line with industry best practice and to provide equality, diversity, and flexible working training to staff.
So a word of warning to employers: claiming jobs are flexible when they’re actually not could have serious repercussions—and could stop your company from getting the best person for the job.
*Name changed to protect anonymity.
Employers – a Working Families membership will give you the tools, guides and policies you need to implement flexible and family-friendly business practices. We also offer coaching and business support. Our online shop sells a range of resources to help employers of all sizes – from all sectors – attract and retain the best talent by creating flexible, family-friendly workplaces.
For more information about your flexible working rights as a parent/carer, call the Working Families helpline on 0300 012 0312 or use our advice contact form.
Download the Modern Families Index 2020