News analysis: Employers concerned about extension of flexible working rights

Small employers are concerned about plans to give more employees the right to request flexible working

The government’s plans to extend the right to request flexible working to an extra 4.5 million people next April have met with a mixed reaction from employers.

Small businesses have reacted negatively to the recommendation by Sainsbury’s HR director, Imelda Walsh, in her government-backed review published last month, that the right to request flexible working should be extended from parents of children aged up to six years, disabled children and carers of adults, to employees with offspring aged up to 16 years.

Small businesses say the extension will be challenging because it will lead to an increase in requests for flexible working at a time when they will also be expected to comply with government proposals to give agency and temporary workers the same pay as permanent staff, and to allow employees to request time off for training.

Alan Tyrrell, employment chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “You can’t have an extension of flexible working and at the same time clamp down on the means by which many small businesses cope with it, which is often through temporary workers.”

EEF director general Martin Temple said that although many employers had enjoyed the benefits of flexible working, they had also experienced problems adapting to an extension of the legislation last year to employees with adult caring responsibilities. A survey of 446 companies published by the EEF in April 2008 found that two-thirds of employers encountered practical problems with flexible working and most of them opposed plans to extend the legislation.

However, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) believes the findings of the Walsh review strike a fair balance because the legislation enables negotiation between employees and employers.

Susan Anderson, the CBI’s director of HR policy, said: “The right to request flexible working has worked well precisely because it is a ‘right to request’ not a ‘right to have’.”

Over the years, the number of requests that are accepted has increased. The CBI/Pertemps employment trends survey for 2007 shows that in 94% of cases, requests from parents were met, compared with 77% in 2004. Anderson said the extension will be “a big step” and that legislation should not come into effect before October 2009 to give businesses time to prepare.

But Dr Carol Atkinson, senior lecturer in HR management at Manchester Metropolitan University, said there is a case for extending the right to request flexible working even further to older workers.

“A lot of the focus is on parents rather than other groups [of employees], and with demographics changing and older people staying longer in the workforce, flexible working could be made more widely available,” she said.