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A week in HR: Flexible working extension pulled

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HR weekThe big story this week is the government’s plan to delay the extension to flexible working, which has angered several commentators. Elsewhere, Unite has won a landmark ruling on age discrimination. Annie Hayes reports.


Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Business, has requested that plans to allow 4.5 million parents to work flexibly are shelved. Reported by The Independent, the plan to extend the right to flexitime from parents of children under six to all those with children up to 16 are to be delayed in an attempt to help out businesses struggling with regulatory burden in the downturn. Other proposals which may also be postponed include extending paid maternity leave from 39 to 52 weeks and creating an extra bank holiday.

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The news has angered several groups. Work-life balance organisation, Working Families said it gave the wrong message at the wrong time: “When productivity and increased competitiveness are a priority, it is not the time to abandon flexible ‘smart’ working practices. Research from Working Families and Cranfield School of Management published earlier this year demonstrates higher levels of employee motivation, commitment and performance for flexible workers – all vitally needed in the current climate,” said Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families.

Jackie Orme, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development conveyed similar sentiments and said the delay risks doing more harm than good to UK competitiveness.

Mandelson can also expect a backlash from the unions, according to a report by the FT. Yet, despite the outcry, some commentators believe it’s of little concern; one HR blogger believes the pull won’t have any impact on business whatsoever.

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Employers need not fear a mass walk out, however, according to a survey by HR providers Ceridian, that reveals that more than half of workers plan to ride out the downturn by sticking with their current employer. This is the case even though 78% expect the impending recession to last up to two years. The white paper How to keep faith of your workforce in bad times provides insight into what HR teams need to be doing right now to see their businesses and employees through the economic downturn. A major problem is the dip in confidence – Ceridian report that 22% say it has affected their confidence in keeping their job, whilst 48% believe that it has already compromised cultural values in their organisation. A key challenge for organisations will be keeping staff once markets improve, says the report.

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Mums are one group that are desperate to hang onto their jobs or find work in the downturn. A new survey from www.workingmums.co.uk shows that 79% are looking to go back to work or increase their present working hours due to the credit crunch. Mandy Garner, spokesperson for WorkingMums.co.uk, said: “Working mothers are a fantastic pool of talent that many businesses should be calling upon.”

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Older workers are also fighting their corner. Britain’s biggest union, Unite, has secured a landmark ruling from the High Court in one of the first cases on age discrimination to be heard. The company sought to argue that taking long service into account when selecting workers for redundancy amounted to indirect age discrimination. This would have had the effect of automatically discounting long service in future rounds of redundancy. This was dismissed by the Courts, who accepted that the service element in the redundancy procedure was lawful as it was a contractual benefit that was effectively a reward for loyalty to the company. The Court also accepted that older workers typically have more difficulty finding new work after being made redundant, and that seeking to protect them in redundancy agreements was legitimate even under the 2006 Age Regulations. For the full story see: Times Online.

Rachel Dineley, head of the diversity and discrimination unit at law firm Beachcroft LLP referred to the judgement as ‘helpful’ to employers especially when seeking to negotiate criteria for redundancy selection. In a warning, however, she said: “If employers are in consultation with unions and wish to avoid giving employees any credit at all for length of service, this case decision may prove to be positively unhelpful. It is important to note that this is in no way an endorsement of the old fashioned ‘last in, first out’ approach. On the contrary, in most cases this would be very difficult to justify, even if the objective was to secure a redundancy exercise ‘peaceably’.”

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Discrimination reared its head again this week, in the form of pay. Should we mind the gap?, a report written by Professor J R Shackleton, raises serious doubts about what it dubs “the supposed benefits of equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation”, arguing that it might well indeed be counter-productive. According to the research, the gaps in pay that do exist are principally explained by differences in working conditions and the values, preferences and choices of individual men and women, which are beyond the reach of government. The full report can be downloaded at: www.iea.org.uk

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Cash-strapped councils also have pay on their mind. News from HRZone.co.uk’s sister site, www.trainingzone.co.uk shows that councils may have to suspend their training initiatives in order to pay staff wages.

Skills minister David Lammy left his post in the recent cabinet reshuffle warning employers they could still be hit by a ‘skills tax’. He made the admission while being grilled by a government select committee about the commitment of UK employers to training. “That’s the elephant in the room that has not yet been put on the table,” said Lammy of the threatened levies.

His replacement, Lord Young, had more positive news and announced a three-year agreement between the government and employers to deliver more skilled workers for ‘jobs of the future’ – housing, facilities management, fashion and textiles. The government has ear-marked £93m from its training budget with similar deals expected in the future as part of a radical shake-up of the skills and training system.

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Annie Hayes

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