Thinking about returning to work flexibly? These tips will help you.

You’ve been having a lovely time on parental leave (between the crying, cracked nipples and lack of sleep, that is), but now you need to get serious about returning to work. Full-time, part-time or flexibly?

Too often I hear examples of women who have not had an easy transition back to work, and even been potentially discriminated against, but have not understood their rights when returning from parental leave. Many mothers want to meet their needs and the needs of their families by returning in a part-time or flexible capacity.

Here are some useful pointers to help make your return more successful.

The first thing is to understand your rights and the best way to do this is to visit the Fair Work Ombudsman website and read your company’s policy, if they have one.

Fair Work’s role is to work with employees, employers and the community to educate and encourage compliance with Australia’s workplace laws. They have many helpful tools including fact sheets and templates that will help you in all aspects of returning to work, including requesting flexibility.

In terms of your rights, many employees have the right to request flexible working arrangements and employers can only refuse these requests on the basis of “reasonable business grounds.”

Flexible working arrangements can include working part-time, changing starting and finishing times of work, or working from home. To be able to request flexible working arrangements you should have worked with the same employer for at least 12 months and will need to be the parent or carer of a child who is school-aged or younger.

Often women address a request to work flexibly by having a discussion with their boss. This verbal discussion works in some cases, but too often it is met with resistance, or might surprise your boss so they are not sure how to respond.

If you are at all unsure if your request will be granted, or if you are faced with verbal resistance, then it would be best for you to follow the Fair Work guidelines and formalise your request in writing. This written request should cover an explanation of what changes are being asked and explain the reasons for the request. This written request is referred to by many workplaces as a business case, and there are examples on Fair Work’s website for you to leverage.

The good news is that employers who receive a written request must give a written response within 21 days saying whether the request is granted or refused. They can only refuse a request on reasonable business grounds and the written response must include the reasons for a refusal.

As your written request is key, make sure you put thought and effort in to documenting your request, addressing how your suggestions will impact on your colleagues, customers and the business. Remember to value the skills you have gained from being a parent and how these skills benefit the workplace—things like prioritisation, multi-tasking, goal setting and achievement are key to being a mother and a great employee.

So just what is “reasonable business grounds” anyway?
Fair Work states employers can refuse requested arrangements if they are too costly, if other employees’ working arrangements can’t be changed to accommodate the request, if the request would result in a significant loss of productivity or have a significant negative impact on customer service. Now take note the language used here—“too costly”, “significant loss” and “significant negative impact”—and don’t be put off too easily. These words have specifically been used by Fair Work so that requests aren’t declined for trivial matters.

If you are at all unsure about what your employer has told you, or feel like you are being treated unfairly then please seek advice. Contact the Fair Work Commission, your union (even if you aren’t yet a member) or a workplace lawyer.

Written by Shannon Lyndon-Lugg. Shannon is a mother to two lovely children and the Head of Career Solutions at Career Ahead. With expertise in human resources, talent, leadership development, diversity and performance, Shannon works with individuals and companies to support career transitions and grow talent.

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