Accommodating Parents: What’s an Employer’s Responsibility?

Most organizations recognize that having family-friendly policies is an important part of having a competitive employer brand. The truth is, it’s no longer exceptional to offer flexible work hours to support parents and caregivers – for employees, flexibility is fast becoming a baseline expectation!

But in some positions and industries, an employee’s need to attend to family responsibilities may conflict with business demands. And in those situations, it can be tough to know whether you have a duty to accommodate based on family status, or whether the responsibility for making alternate arrangements rests with the employee.

Suppose an employee comes to you and says that the obligations of the workplace discriminate against them based on their status as a parent. As an employer, it can be a challenge to know exactly when the duty to accommodate is triggered. That’s when getting clear on the facts and having a process in place for responding to family status accommodation requests is essential.

“For employees, flexibility is fast becoming a baseline expectation!”

What do the courts say?

The BC Human Rights Tribunal applies the following test to establish whether accommodation based on family status is necessary: whether a condition of employment has resulted in a “serious interference with a substantial parental or other family duty or obligation of the employee”. Basically, if the workplace requirement prevents the employee from fulfilling their legal parental responsibilities and there is no other reasonable alternative, the employer’s duty to accommodate may be triggered.

What does this mean for employers?

For employers, this means that not every conflict between work and family obligations will trigger an employer’s duty to accommodate. While providing flexibility and saying “yes” to most reasonable requests to help employees balance work and life is best practice, sometimes it’s just not feasible from a business perspective.

If every request based on an employee’s preference had to be accommodated, you can bet that most of us would choose to spend more time with family! While an employee may want to pick their children up from school or attend every ballet lesson and soccer practice, their preference to do so is not necessarily (or even probably) something that their employer must accommodate.

With that in mind, if an employee comes to you with a request for family status accommodation, there are some important steps to follow:

  1. Engage in meaningful conversation to determine whether accommodation based on family status is the appropriate route. As with any accommodation, family status accommodation requests should be looked at case-by-case.
  2. Remember that the employee is obligated to actively participate in finding a solution to their caregiving dilemma. Consider what alternative supports may be available to the employee as well as what other efforts the employee has made to deal with the conflict.
  3. If an employee’s request is reasonable, explore it! If a change in work hours or scheduling to accommodate an employee’s family obligations won’t cause you undue hardship as an employer, consider ways to make it happen!
  4. Follow your organization’s accommodation policy to make sure you’re ticking all the right boxes, and ensure that each step in the accommodation process is followed and documented accurately.
  5. If you have to say no, make sure you have a solid reason and have documented your exploration of their request. Finally, be transparent about your findings, and communicate your decision to the employee along with a clear rationale.

Your Engaged Assignment: If an employee came to you tomorrow with an accommodation request based on family status, would you know what steps to follow? If not, or if you don’t already have a clear accommodation plan in place, set time aside to formalize your policies and procedures around accommodation and flexibility.

Balancing family status accommodation with company objectives can be difficult. Not sure where to start with updating your policy or responding to an employee’s request for flexibility? Give us a call!