Don’t make assumptions about flexible working

An employment tribunal ruling this week shows why employers should listen to their employees and not make assumptions on their behalf.

Gavel with employment written on it, representing employment law


There was an interesting employment tribunal ruling this week. The tribunal ruled in favour of a woman who asked to work flexibly by her sick son’s hospital bed. Lorraine Hodgson, an office manager who resigned from Martin Design Associates as a result of her treatment, was found to have been constructively unfairly dismissed and directly discriminated against on the grounds of sex.

The judge ruled that her boss had decided that she could not work and look after her son’s needs in hospital “whatever she thought”, and that her gave Hodgson’s views “no credit [and] had a closed mind to the idea that she could fulfil all or part of her role remotely”. This was despite the fact that she could have used a company laptop and telephone and would have been able to do much of her work remotely.

Hodgson’s boss compared her request to a rugby player who asked to continue playing after sustaining a head injury and needed someone else to make the decision. He is reported to have told the tribunal: “As a caring family man I would not expect my wife or any member of my staff to continue working in such a stressful situation.”

Men in the office were allowed to work remotely and did not have to have the decision taken for them, the judge said.

What is interesting about the case is that the boss’ argument that he was doing what he thought was best for the woman. He no doubt thought he was being considerate and taking stress off her. Yet he didn’t do the same for male colleagues and he didn’t listen to what the woman herself was saying.

The case highlights the role of unconscious bias in decision-making and the importance of employee engagement. We’ve had people write to us, for instance, to tell us that their employer assumed they would want to work part time after maternity leave and had budgeted for that when they were keen to get back to full-time hours or assumed that the person would not want to return after maternity leave or not want promotion. In each case, the manager no doubt that they were being considerate.

The case also underscores the importance of the language used in policies and the intention behind them. We often, for instance, talk about support for working mums or women. Yet sometimes that may suggest that women are some sort of fragile, special case. Interestingly, experts who have worked with men say that they often switch the word support to information or something else that is non-fluffy because that works better.

The issue is not that women need special support so much as that the system is designed without them in mind. The focus should therefore be on understanding potential barriers and improving work outcomes. Each person has different needs so a range of options need to be in place to offer choice for everyone, for instance, allowing for flexible working patterns in accordance with the role being done. Engaging with people to find out what they want and what they think is best for their circumstances is at the heart of this. What is needed is a conversation where both sides speak and, crucially, both sides listen.

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