Comment: Firms should embrace flexible working

According to mumsnet study only 13 per cent find employers family friendly. Picture: PA

According to mumsnet study only 13 per cent find employers family friendly. Picture: PA

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ARE you a family-friendly employer? Odds are you’re not, at least in the eyes of those who work for you.

In a survey out last week from parenting website Mumsnet (www.mumsnet.com), only 13 per cent of workers said their employer was family-friendly, while two-thirds said they were not. It’s an improvement on 2011, when 84 per cent said the boss was unsympathetic to the demands of parenting, but there are still far too many out there feeling pressured into pretending they have no home commitments.

It’s a problem the advent of flexible working was meant to address, and people are increasingly turning to flexi-time, compressed hours, job sharing and home work as a way of balancing their lives. A handful of forward-thinking firms have embraced this new reality, but many have yet to reach the level of trust required to make these fluid agreements work. According to one study, more than half of employers who support flexible hours still worry whether employees are making the best use of their time. And while top management may fully endorse it, getting the message across to every member in the ranks can be a challenge.

That appears to have been the case at accountancy firm PwC, which earlier this month lost a discrimination case brought by a male manager whose application for part-time work was rejected. Erik Pietzka was warned by a senior colleague in the group’s Cardiff office that cutting down his hours would harm his career progression; similar requests from women in his office were met with less resistance.

Despite a string of diversity and gender equality awards to PwC’s credit, it seems this one manager subconsciously believed that flexible working to look after the family is OK for women, but not for men.

It’s a common misconception: according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, fathers in the UK are twice as likely as mothers to be rejected for flexible working. The disproportionate number of women working in this way has been blamed in part for the gender pay gap. Such arrangements are not an option in many higher-paying roles, leaving part-timers and their ilk the choice of more modest postings.

But recent research out of the US suggests that employees who are parents face similar career challenges when asking for flexible schedules. Regardless of gender, those who ask for it are deemed to be less committed and less deserving of rewards such as pay rises and promotions. Ironically, policies designed to ease work-family tensions may actually hamper career progress.

Mumsnet chief executive Justine Roberts is due to speak at a flexible working round table hosted by the CBI this Wednesday in London. Roberts says she aims to help improve company policies, “both for customers and employees” – a goal that becomes far more feasible as flexible working leaves the realm of “women’s issues” and becomes a concern for all. «

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