Ask the panel

July 27, 2007

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

'I have just returned from maternity leave and would like to work more from home. In the (predominantly male) culture of my department this may be construed as shirking my responsibilities. I know it is frowned on if I miss departmental meetings late in the day, and I already feel that my maternity leave is viewed as some kind of sabbatical. What are my legal rights and my best course of action? Can I change the culture from within or should I look for a more sympathetic employer?'

* A spokesperson for the University and College Union says: "Working from home is considered within the law as one of the options people can ask for within the Right to Request Flexible Working, and therefore you have the right to have this particular request considered under this legislation. You must make clear that your request is a formal application under the right to request. There is an application form available from the Department of Trade and Industry via http:///www.berr.gov.uk/files/file37031.doc , which may be helpful in making it more formal and absolutely clear to your employers that this is such an application.

"You should set out what pattern of flexible working is requested: for example, reduced hours, flexitime, term-time working or, as in your case , working from home more often. Indicate which days you had in mind and explain, in so far as it is possible to ascertain, the effect that this might have on the workplace and how such effects might be dealt with.

"Bear in mind that any change agreed has permanent effect: you have no automatic right to go back to the original working pattern. The more detail you can give the better, as it will help to allay any reservations your employer might have.

"Once your employer receives your application there is a procedure they must follow, which includes holding a meeting to discuss the request. If they deny your request, they must also set out in detail their grounds for refusal, and they must explain how you can appeal. If they do not follow the procedure then you have grounds to make a formal complaint to an employment tribunal.

"You mentioned about meetings taking place late in the day. Is there any particular reason for this timing? It would be worth suggesting an alternative time when these could be held. Other colleagues might also find that a different timing would work better - or would at least be just as feasible for them as later meetings.

"Work-life balance is not just for people who want to reduce their working hours. It's about responding to individual circumstances to help individuals fulfil their responsibilities and aspirations. There are many best-practice examples of organisations who have adopted flexible working, and the benefits are many for employers as well as employees. Useful information is on the Working Families website: www.workingfamilies.org.uk/asp/home_zone/m_welcome.asp ".

*  Professor Gill Evans, project leader of the Hefce-funded Dispute Resolution Project , says: "Maternity leave is a statutory right, and if some of your colleagues speak as though it were a kind of sabbatical you should put them right.

"However, you must consider whether it is practical to do more work from home without students or fellow researchers suffering, or departmental administration being adversely affected when you miss meetings. In other words, can you really do your job properly in that way? Is it fair to colleagues whose workloads may increase if you are not there? It is important that any arrangements are agreed by the whole department and thought out carefully so that no one feels disadvantaged or treated unsympathetically. If you tackle this with the recognition that your colleagues have as much right to have their personal circumstances allowed for as you do, the result is likely to be more positive for everyone."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and Gill Evans, the project leader of the Dispute Resolution Project. Send your questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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