Ask the panel

November 9, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am head of a small department in an old university. I have recently had requests to work in a flexible manner from three members of my staff. As far as I can see, they all have equally good cases. My problem is that if I grant them all their requests, the department will not be able to run properly. However, I fear that if I grant one and not the others I will be seen as acting unfairly. I feel this will create a bad atmosphere in the department and make all our working relationships difficult. Can I turn them all down?

Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "The simple answer to your question is, yes, you can turn them all down. The right to request is just that - it does not give the right to have the request granted."

However, she adds: "But I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that your department will not be helped by having three staff who are very dissatisfied and struggling to balance their parental and working responsibilities.

"It may be that in some cases staff may feel they have to leave the job if it is impossible to combine with their childcare needs. It is also worth noting that from April 2007, the right to request flexible working will be extended to carers of adults with disabilities or long-term illnesses, so such requests are likely to become more common.

"So now may be the time to look at all aspects of how your department is run, and consider if some things can be done in a different way, which does allow a more flexible approach to working hours. In the short term, if relations between you and the three members of staff are good all round, it might be worth considering having an informal meeting in which each person's needs are discussed and a compromise arrived at that meets the needs of each individual as far as is possible without seriously disrupting the work of the department, and which all agree is a fair solution."

n Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "The flexible working law enables parents with a child under six or a disabled child under 18 to make a request for flexible working.

"While you do not have to agree to such a request, you are under an obligation to give it serious consideration and can reject it only for good business reasons such as the inability to reorganise work among existing staff, or the detrimental impact on quality or performance in the department concerned."

He adds: "However, you must treat each case individually and follow the correct procedure for each member of staff's application rather than trying to give all staff a blanket response.

"I suggest you try to assess the applications by looking carefully at the reason(s) for the request, any impact of the request on the department and suggestions the member of staff has made for dealing with issues arising from their request.

"The legislation requires you to meet with the employee to discuss their request within 28 days of receiving it. You could use this opportunity to seek their input into finding a solution to the problem or to discuss alternative flexible working patterns that could be accommodated, before you make a final decision.

"You may find the section on flexible working in the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff guidance on Work Life Balance useful. This can be found on Ucea's new website ( www.ucea.ac.uk ) under the 'Publications' section."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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