Employment Tribunal Case Law – Handling Flexible Working Requests

Ask yourself, are you familiar with the process of handling flexible working requests?

A recent case heard by the Employment Tribunal highlights the importance of knowing how and when to manage a flexible working request made by an employee. In this case, a long-serving manager was constructively dismissed when her request for reduced hours after returning from a period of adoption leave was refused.

To establish some important facts, the Claimant and her partner adopted two sons in June 2022, and then had a period of adoption leave. Following the end of her leave, she submitted a flexible working request to look after her sons – one of whom the tribunal described had previously experienced “trauma” and “needed stability”.

During the period of leave, the Company was sold and following the acquisition, Miss Westerdale took over as HR manager, but she admitted to having no experience of dealing with employees returning to work after a period of family leave and had never dealt with a flexible working request. The Claimant sent an email to the Company outlining that she wanted to return to work on two days a week but would be able to increase her days the following year when her sons required less childcare. However, Miss Westerdale phoned her and told her that her request to work two days a week had been declined. Miss Westerdale denied this and claimed that in the phone call she said the matter was still under review. The tribunal did not accept this fact, as the Claimant had sent Miss Westerdale an email within half an hour of the call asking for the reasons why they had denied her request.

The Claimant’s solicitor wrote to the Respondent highlighting the failures in handling her flexible working request, outlining her legal claims and that she sought financial settlement in return for an agreed termination of her employment at the end of her adoption leave. Miss Westerdale did not reply to the letter, but instead wrote to the Claimant saying that no decision had been made yet, but if she was unhappy with the decision when received, she would be able to appeal the decision.

Miss Westerdale wrote to the Claimant saying they could not accommodate a two-day week and it needed her to return to work for four days a week. She also said in the letter that the Company could not afford the extra cost of recruiting another staff member to cover the handover from the Claimant at the end of her work period. The Claimant resigned, outlining in her resignation letter that the Company had failed in its obligations towards her in dealing with her flexible working request, and there were no valid reasons for the refusal.

The tribunal claimed that the firm’s HR manager had sought to “cover her tracks” after she realised that she had not followed proper procedures in denying the Claimant’s request. The Judge commented that Miss Westerdale failed to properly consult with the Claimant before reaching the decision, “and pretended that a decision had not been made when it had”, resulting in the Claimant being unfairly constructively dismissed. However, the tribunal concluded that it had not seen evidence to show that the Respondent acted as they did because the Claimant had taken adoption leave.

Rather, the tribunal found that it was effectively due to the HR manager’s lack of experience in dealing with flexible working requests, the failure to understand the need to obtain full information and discuss the request with the Claimant before reaching a decision, and the desire to cover their tracks when they realised, they should not have reached a decision when they did.

The tribunal therefore awarded a total of £15,048.18 in compensation to the Claimant for unfair dismissal.