A Government scheme to persuade young mothers to return to work has backfired on thousands of UK businesses, an employment law specialist warned last night.
The "one size can fit all" legislation introduced in 2003 imposes the same flexible working obligations on businesses whether they employ ten people or two thousand.
"The idea is that working mothers - or fathers who share the care of any child under the age of six - can ask to go part time, work from home, take part in job-sharing, or limit their commitment to term time; in fact anything other than nine-to-five Monday to Friday," said Ranjit Dhindsa, head of employment law in the Midlands office of Reed Smith.
"But while it might be easy for an employer to agree to the first request for flexible working, it's a different matter when the fifth worker out of eight employed by the company demands the same treatment."
The problem arises for employers when they try to refuse requests that the law considers to be reasonable.
"The employee has to put the request in writing, and demonstrate the effect it would have on the business," said Ms Dhindsa. The employer has to respond to the request within four weeks, and the law only allows six reasons for refusal - burden of additional cost; detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand; inability to reorganise work with the remaining staff; detrimental impact on quality; detrimental impact on business performance; insufficient work during the periods the employee wants to work
"The company has to give full reasons for refusal, and if it gets it wrong it can be compelled to compensate the employee to the tune of eight weeks pay," Ms Dhindsa said. "If more than one employee is refused permission for flexible hours that can soon mount up into a sizeable figure - and employees can each make one application a year."
Even more seriously, most requests are made by women returning to work after maternity leave - and unreasonable refusal can provide evidence for sexual discrimination claims, which have no upper limit on damages. "If employers insist that female employees with children work in the office Monday to Friday from nine-to-five, women can argue that since they are the carers of the family they are being discriminated against because of their sex," Ms Dhindsa said.
Ms Dhindsa said: "Managers have to be very careful what they say and how they say it.
"One request not handled properly can lead to a number of other legal claims not anticipated.
She added: "The whole issue of flexible working can be a minefield. What happens in the case of someone who works from home?
"Does the company have to provide a computer, and the necessary software, and what about insurance and risk assessment? And what happens when equipment goes wrong and the employee needs assistance and back-up?"