This post was written by Joanna Powis.

From 30 June 2014, the statutory right to request flexible working was extended to all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service. The right was previously limited to employees with caring responsibilities.

It is important to remember that the rules are limited to a right to make a flexible working request. Prior to 30 June 2014, employers had a broad discretion to reject a request for legitimate business reasons. We examine below whether this is still the case. We also look at how the flexible working request procedure has changed and some tricky issues that may arise as a result of employers receiving more flexible working requests.

Simplified procedure

The good news for employers is that the procedure that needs to be followed when dealing with a flexible working request is far less prescriptive under the new legislation. The complex statutory procedure has been abolished and instead, employers are required to comply with the ACAS Code of Practice – Handling in a Reasonable Manner Requests to Work Flexibly. ACAS has also produced guidance which supplements the Code.

In summary, the Code provides that once the employee has made a written request, the employer has three months to consider it, discuss it with the employee and notify them of the decision and, if the request is rejected, give the employee the right to appeal. Employees should be allowed to be accompanied to any meetings.

There is no longer a requirement on the employer to explain the reasoning behind its decision, but it is still advisable to do so, not least because it may avoid an appeal and/or a subsequent claim. Remember that in order to avoid a discrimination claim, the reasoning should be unrelated to protected characteristics (e.g. age, disability, sex).

Refusing a request

The position remains that an employer can only refuse a request to work flexibly on one or more of the eight specific (but relatively broad) grounds set out below:

  • The burden of additional costs
  • Detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
  • Inability to reorganise work among existing staff
  • Inability to recruit additional staff
  • Detrimental impact on quality
  • Detrimental impact on performance
  • Insufficiency of work during the periods the employee proposes to work, or
  • Planned structural changes

Under the legislation (which remains the same), the test of whether or not one of the specific grounds applies is a subjective one. If the employer considers that one of the grounds applies, then the test is satisfied. However, the new Code confuses matters. The Code imposes an obligation on employers to act reasonably in making a decision whether to accept a flexible working request. This obligation appears to apply to the decision itself, as well as to the procedure followed in coming to the decision – meaning that employees could argue that the Code introduces an element of objectivity to the test.

For example, the Code provides that requests should be considered carefully by weighing up the benefits of the requested changes against any adverse business impact. Employers who are unable to demonstrate they have gone through this thought process leave themselves open to claims that they have not dealt with the request reasonably. In the future, we are likely to see more claims challenging the basis of the decision itself.

Prioritising requests

It remains to be seen whether employers will be flooded with flexible working requests as a result of the recent changes. Many employers have considered flexible working requests outside of the statutory scheme for some time. However, it can probably be assumed that, at least as a result of the publicity generated by the changes, there will be some increase for employers. A tricky question is how employers should deal with multiple requests. For example, can an employer give priority to requests it considers are made for more ‘worthwhile’ reasons (e.g. how do you prioritise a request for a later start time to accommodate childcare arrangements over the same request to accommodate reduced commuting costs)? What can an employer do if it grants a request then a couple of months later receives another request which it considers ‘more deserving’?

The ACAS guidance explains that employers faced with multiple requests are not required to make value judgments about the most deserving, but there is nothing preventing an employer from doing so (provided it does not act in a discriminatory way). Indeed, in order to properly consider the benefits of the requested change to each employee (as expressly required by the Code), employers will arguably have to apply some form of value judgment. There are some circumstances in which it might be legitimate to apply value judgments to prioritise one request over another (e.g. prioritising a request made by a disabled employee, the refusal of which could amount to a failure to make reasonable adjustments), but it should be avoided where possible.

The Guidance says that requests should be considered in the order in which they are received. This isn’t much help to the employer who receives a request it can no longer accommodate because it previously granted a ‘less deserving’ request. In this situation, the best option would be to speak to affected employees about the issue and see if a compromise can be reached. Failing that, the Code is clear that the correct approach is “first come, first served”.

Take aways

  • Check whether your flexible working policy needs updating – it probably does. References to the old prescriptive procedural requirements should be removed. Consider whether to set out how multiple requests will be dealt with.
  • Make sure you follow the Code and Guidance when dealing with new flexible working requests. Remember that the old procedural rules still apply to flexible working requests made prior to 30 June 2014.
  • If you are not sure whether a request can be accommodated, consider trialling the request, or a variation of the request, over a certain period. Make sure details of the trial period, and how it will end, are properly documented.
  • Remember that the main risk of refusing a request is not usually the maximum compensation payable for failure to comply with the flexible working regime (eight weeks’ pay currently capped at £464 per week), but a claim for discrimination with potentially unlimited compensation.
  • Take a consistent approach to dealing with requests to reduce the risk of discrimination claims.