Friday, March 08, 2013

Home truths for Gillard

If Julia Gillard had her way, what Marissa Mayer has just done at Yahoo! in California will soon be against the law in Australia.

Mayer is the 37-year-old CEO of Yahoo!, the ailing Fortune 500 internet company.  She's ranked by Forbes as the 21st most powerful woman in the world.  A fortnight ago she instructed those employees who had previously worked from home that they were required to work from the company's office instead.  The change is estimated to affect a few hundred of the company's approximately 10,000 employees.

The decision has divided business people.

Richard Branson called it ''a backwards step''.  However, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, noted:  ''I've always said telecommuting is one of the dumber ideas I've ever heard.  Yes, there are some things you can do at home.  But having a chat line is not the same thing as standing at the water cooler.  And standing at the water cooler is where you get a lot of ideas and information and it's a euphemism for a lot of interpersonal dialogue.''

That's something unusually sensible coming from Bloomberg.  Last year, as mayor, he banned the sale of two-litre soft drink bottles in New York to fight obesity.  He also argued recently that the United States could have an ''infinite'' debt because there would always be lenders willing to let the US borrow more money.

Just a few weeks before Yahoo! called everyone back to the office, Prime Minister Gillard announced plans to expand the category of employees who had the right to request ''flexible working arrangements'' from their employer.  The PM said she would try to amend the Fair Work Act before the September federal election so that employees such as those over the age of 55 and those with caring responsibilities would have the right to request to work from home, for example.

If the PM succeeds in changing the law then it's likely employers will only be able to refuse employees' requests for flexible arrangements on ''reasonable business grounds''.

The Fair Work Act doesn't actually define what ''reasonable business grounds'' are.

If employers say no to a request, they must provide a written explanation to the employee within 21 days of the employee's request.  If employers don't respond within the time period, or they don't respond in writing, or they don't give reasons for their refusal, then the employer will have broken the law.

If an employee disputes a decision, they can go to the Fair Work Commission.  In addition, if the employee believes they've been discriminated against, they may be able to sue their employee under anti-discrimination legislation.

Yahoo's outright ban on working from home would fall foul of the Fair Work Act because, in Australia, each employee's request to work from home would have to be considered individually.

Mayer made exactly the same sort of calculation that every employer makes every day.

If she thought her company would be more successful if its employees worked from home, then obviously she would have let them work from home.

If flexible working arrangements for employees are good for a business, then of course employers will do what they can to accommodate employees.

This is a point Gillard seems unable to understand.

It's not the role of government to second-guess employers' decisions.  Running a business in the current economic climate is tough enough as it is without the Gillard government imposing yet another regulatory burden on employers.

If an employee asks an employer for flexible working arrangements and the employer says no, that should be the end of the matter.  There shouldn't be a law requiring the employer to justify themselves to the employee, the government, or to anyone else.

When she announced her flexible work proposals the PM made a very revealing comment.  She said that ''what we wanted to do with the right to request was to change behaviour''.  These proposals have nothing to with productivity or profitability — they are about having businesses conform to a standard of behaviour Gillard thinks business should follow.

Gillard is ranked by Forbes as the 27th most powerful woman in the world.

Mayer and Gillard may not be too far apart when it comes to their supposed global influence, but they are on different planets when it comes to their knowledge of business and what it takes to run a business.

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