Recruiter’s view on asking for flexible working

joannaEY are known for being champions of flexible working. They advertise all their roles as being open to flexibility, and have people working in a range of ways, including part-time, job shares and flexible start and finish times, at all levels in the firm. They have also established a successful returner programme, EY Reconnect, which provides people who have had a career break with a supported route back into work.

So when it came to finding out what employers are really thinking when candidates raise the flex question, EY’s Joanna Clarke seemed like the ideal person to ask. As well as being head of recruitment for the firm’s Advisory practice, Joanna is the programme lead for EY Reconnect.

Here are the top five things she suggests candidates should think about.

1. Start by researching the firm and its culture

If flexible working is important to you, you’ll stand a better chance if you apply to a firm with a flex-friendly culture. As Joanna explains:

“At EY, flexible working is just part of our everyday way of working. Our default position is that all our jobs can be done flexibly, and we have a guide to flexible working, The Future is Flexible, to help people understand their own flexible needs and rights. So any candidates applying to us know that they’re likely to get a positive response if they bring it up.

“I’d definitely recommend finding out how open an organisation is to flexible working before you apply. Look at their website; do they have any articles about their views on flexibility, or any case studies or role models who are working in this way? You should be able to speak directly to their recruitment team to ask a few questions about their approach to flexibility.

“Once you know what the organisation is currently offering, it’s a lot easier to see whether you could make something similar work for you.”

2. Remember that flexibility doesn’t have to be set in stone

It’s easy to think that you will have to stick to whatever working pattern you agree at the start. But in fact, says Joanna, it’s better to be flexible about your flexibility.

“An employee’s flexible needs often change during the course of their career. For example, if you need to work flexibly for caring reasons, your responsibilities may become more or less time-consuming over time. So you don’t need to feel under pressure to get everything buttoned down from the start.

“EY provides opportunities for informal flexible working, alongside contractually-based flexible arrangements such as reduced hours. Flexibility is embedded within our culture, which means arrangements such as working from home are agreed informally within the team. We also have a career coaching structure, so there’s a process built in for reviewing working practices.

“So while it’s worth being clear in your mind about what you think you’ll need to begin with, you may want to suggest a review period after three to six months. I recommend taking a career-long view as to how your needs may change as you progress.”

3. Think about how you present yourself

EY see self-promotion as a key attribute that will help candidates navigate the ever-evolving workplace. And certainly, from Joanna’s perspective, the way you present yourself can have a big impact on a flexible working conversation.

“You should never apologise for asking for flexibility; in today’s workplace, it should simply be part of the discussion. So be clear in your mind about your personal boundaries, and raise the issue with confidence.

“And don’t overcompensate, such by saying you’ll work at home until midnight if they let you leave at 5pm. That implies that flexibility is a problem that has to be accommodated, rather than just another equally valid way of working.

“Candidates who apply to EY don’t need to present a formal business case, as flexible working is so ingrained in our culture. But whoever you’re applying to, it still makes sense to talk about how your proposal would benefit the company and its clients. It also inspires confidence if you can give examples of how you, or others, have made a success of working flexibly.”

4. Approach it as a discussion, not a demand

Exactly when you should raise flexible working depends on a variety of factors, as our series of articles explains in more detail. But according to Joanna, you should always approach it as a discussion, rather than setting out a list of demands.

“I see the discussion around flexible working as part of the closing process. So you should always lead on skills and experience to get the job, and then negotiate flexibility as you would your salary.

“If you know the organisation is flex friendly, you can introduce the topic by asking how the interviewer views it. You could mention any case studies from the company that you’re aware of, or ask what kind of flexibility currently exists within their team. You can then set out your proposal, as explained above.

“Remember, though, that you may need to compromise on your perfect scenario to some degree, and that the employer may not be able to give you a definitive answer on the spot. It’s a two-way process, and they may need some time to find the best solution for everyone.”

5. If you have had a break, be open about it

It’s not unusual for people who have had a career break to try and disguise the fact when applying for a job. But Joanna believes that’s counterproductive:

“Employers are becoming increasingly aware that career returners are an untapped pool of talent, who can bring a great deal of experience, insight and maturity to their organisation. So instead of trying to gloss over your break, be upfront about it, and shift the focus to what you gained during your time away from the workplace.

“Of course, it can feel daunting to get back into work, particularly if you have had a long break. But we have seen people come through our Reconnect programme after a break of 10 years and make a real success of it.

“If you are able to apply for a returner programme like EY Reconnect, it’s well worth it, as you will receive support and training to help you settle back in and bring you up to speed. Good programmes will be tailored to suit the candidate, however long they have been away.”

So whatever kind of role you’re looking for, and whatever stage you’re at in your career, these tips should help you achieve a flexible working pattern that works for you.

Applications for EY’s September 2019 Reconnect programme are now open, and the deadline for applying is 01 July 2019. The programme will run for 12 weeks from mid-September, and is for people who have had a career break of between two and 10 years.


This article has been written in association with EY, one of our Timewise partners.

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