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Landmark case brings sex discrimination warning for employers

A regional employment law expert is warning company bosses to be aware of a landmark ruling which saw an airline try to force a stewardess onto a flexible rota after she gave birth.

In the case, before she went on maternity leave, cabin crew manager Emma Seville had worked full-time flexible hours – she was required to work any 22 days in a month period.

Once she had her baby she submitted a flexible working request asking to work a specific part-time shift of 11 pre-arranged days per month when she returned to work earlier this year.

A fixed shift pattern would mean she could more easily arrange childcare, which Oliver McCann, partner in the Employment team at Napthens solicitors, said is a common request by parents returning to work.

However, Flybe, her employer, rejected her flexible working request, arguing they could not accommodate any more fixed shifts for staff. The airline wanted her to work a flexible part-time shift pattern where she would be required to work any 11 days in the month, rather than having the certainty of 11 fixed days.

After exhausting Flybe’s internal appeals procedure, the case was taken to tribunal where it was argued that requiring Ms Seville, or any other comparable employee, to work a flexible shift pattern would put female workers at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts.

She won her claim for indirect sex discrimination.

Oliver McCann of Napthens said: “The judge agreed that the air stewardess had been placed at a disadvantage, and has ordered that both parties will now have six weeks to come to an agreement.

“During the tribunal it was revealed that the employee involved felt she had no other option but to take the case to a tribunal.

“This illustrates just how important it is for businesses to work with their staff to find a solution for any issues they may have, particularly during a sensitive time such as following the birth of a child.

“This case is expected to be seen by other airline employees as a test case and it’s important for employers to look at what happened and make sure their own systems and procedures are fit for purpose.”