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Sunday, July 21, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Carol Kleiman / Syndicated columnist

Want flextime? Boss may bend to your wishes

Flexible scheduling is the benefit of choice in the United States, but employees still have difficulty asking for it — and employers granting it.

In reality, flexible scheduling isn't solely a favor that employers may deign to grant. And it's not an employee right, either. Instead, it falls somewhere in between.

I call it a "win/win" situation: Current research shows that employees who are able to handle their personal responsibilities are better workers.

And the most important finding today about requesting flexible scheduling is that if you do it right, it could be yours for the asking.

At KPMG, a professional accounting and tax firm based in Montvale, N.J., a formal policy has been in place since 1994.

"We regard it as a negotiated business decision just like any other business decision, not an entitlement," said Kathie Lingle, national work/life director for KPMG, which has 18,000 U.S. employees in 140 offices. Some 2,500 of its workers have flexible schedules.

"We have a flexible work arrangement tool kit that employees fill out, starting with a business proposal that is then presented to the manager and others involved — and may or may not be granted," said Lingle, who is active in the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit work/life consulting firm in New York.

"It's a comprehensive document in which you write out the schedule you would like, describe how it will impact on your work, colleagues and clients and explain how you would resolve the gaps."

The options are compressed workweeks, flextime for starting and ending work, telecommuting, regular part-time work, job sharing and a phased-in return after a leave. Flextime is the most popular.

If your manager OKs your plan, you sign an agreement that includes how often it will be reviewed (usually every six months). "We're not doing this simply because we're nice," Lingle said. "Two-thirds of our employees on flexible schedules tell us they would have left without it."

If your employer doesn't have a formal policy, Lingle says it is up to you to initiate the process.

"Start by clearly defining your needs," she said. "Then identify problems and obstacles and give solutions. Demonstrate your concern for the business. Develop a realistic plan for getting your job done. And remember, it's only a proposal, so be flexible. Be prepared for a 'No' answer and have a backup plan."

At KPMG, all employees, including the support staff, may ask for flexible scheduling. "Everybody's got a life," Lingle said.

But at most other companies, workplace flexibility is harder to negotiate for workers who are in lower-level and often lower-paying jobs.

I asked an expert on the subject, Susan Lambert, an associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, if flexible schedules generally are offered across the board.

"At the lower levels, no," said Lambert, co-director of the Project on the Public Economy of Work, funded by the Ford Foundation, and the author of a continuing study of entry-level jobs and how their structure affects workers.

"These jobs vary a great deal in status — which often determines your access to benefits and other opportunities, including your ability to have some control over your work hours," she said.

Lambert, who is studying 20 major employers in the Chicago area with emphasis on the hospitality, financial-services, package-delivery and retail industries, says she has found "many barriers" to flexible scheduling.

"For instance, if you work only three days a week but never know which days you will work or don't know long your shift will be, how can you arrange for child care or ask for a flexible schedule?"

If you don't have regular hours, she points out, "there's little opportunity to have any control. It's not flexibility, it's instability."

And it's ironic that some of the workers who need flexibility most have little chance of getting it — or even asking for it.

E-mail questions to Carol Kleiman at ckleiman@tribune.com. Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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