Business groups say flexible work not right for all firms

PLANS to extend parental leave and grant flexible working rights to all employees was yesterday received cautiously by business groups, who warned that many companies would struggle with the extra administrative burden.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said new legislation, which could be introduced as early as 2015, will allow both parents to share up to 12 months off work in total after the birth of a child. In addition, every worker will have the right to demand flexible shift patterns.

The Liberal Democrat leader hopes this will help bring more mothers back into the economy and destigmatise unconventional working patterns.

Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, warned that flexible working is not suitable for all employees or every business. “Extending the right to request does not change this, it only creates more unnecessary form-filing and wasted time. This move runs counter to the government’s drive to reduce the burden of regulation on business.”

The CBI’s chief policy director Katja Hall agreed flexible working “helps to retain talent” but said firms must be able to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, raised concerns that small firms may struggle to cope: “The government’s current proposals risk causing unnecessary friction between parents and employers, and raise unrealistic expectations about the level of flexibility most businesses will be able to accommodate.

“The government’s plans will also generate major uncertainty for employers, as they will represent the seventh change to parental leave in a decade,” he added.

Caroline Carter, head of employment at law firm Ashurst, warned that the obligation for firms to “reasonably consider” requests for flexible working from all employees – not just mothers and carers – could create legal risks problems for firms.

“One of the key difficulties for employers will be how to prioritise multiple requests from different employees without damaging employee relations and giving rise to discrimination claims,” she explained. “Under the new proposals employers who prioritise the requests of one group (e.g. women) over another (e.g. single men) could be on the receiving end of a more diverse range of discrimination claims.”