Key questions and process for making decisions on employee requests for flexibility, leave or similar considerations 

By Dr. Barbara Roberts, Executive Director, WorkLife
September 6, 2018; updated February 20, 2019

Published in the College and University Work Family Association (CUWFA) Quarterly Review Fall 2018


When I met with various campus leaders at the start of the WorkLife Office, I often heard about challenges making fair decisions about different employees’ individual work-life circumstances. Leaders do not feel confident making different decisions for different people, based on their unique situations. Sometimes this results in simply denying requests (flex time or leave), or having universal but ill-fitting practices that are not satisfactory to anyone involved. A protocol that is responsive to individual circumstances, accountable and transparent through consistency, while protecting individual privacy is needed. Such processes build trust, enhance effectiveness of strategies, and foster teamwork among department members and with leadership. My background in equitable decision-making through consistency of analysis led me to develop a protocol for such administrative decisions.


In my doctoral work, I developed a decision-making protocol to guide decisions about accommodation of students with disabilities in clinical fieldwork and professional settings, including fields like rehabilitation, medicine, nursing, teaching and veterinary medicine. The guiding principle is based on the notion of equity, that treating different people/situations differently is fairer than treating different people/situations exactly the same, and that if different situations are addressed with a consistent approach, more equitable and accountable outcomes can be achieved. 

The protocol consisted of question set based on court cases questioning discriminatory requirements in employment, and I applied the same court-mandated questions to challenges to educational requirements, to assist clinical educators in determining what might, or might not, be accomplished via a different means to the same end. The focus is on analysis of the task, requirement, job duties or actions required, not on personal circumstances. The work continues to be well-received and I consult frequently on decision-making with clinical programs in Canada. The model provides a consistent analysis of the task/work requirement that yields an accountable and transparent decision, regardless of the individual situation, but nonetheless responsive to it. The questions, referred to in Canadian law as the “three-step test”, are 1) Is the requirement established in good faith? 2) Is the requirement rationally connected to the purpose of the job/task? 3) What is the evidence of the need for the requirement? (Meiorin, 1999)

Support for this idea in the field of work life came from three sources.  Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family, Brad Harrington, was the keynote speaker at our launch conference for the WorkLIfe Office. His Executive Briefing “Creating a Culture of Flexibility” recommends that employers “Develop a decision-making process for requesting, approving and monitoring flexible work options with a focus on meeting business objectives.”  Nancy Costikyan, Director of WorkLIfe at Harvard said in the CUWFA Quarterly Review, Winter 2018, “…the [personal] reason behind a flex arrangement proposal shouldn’t drive a manager’s decision. Instead, managers are urged to determine if the proposed arrangement will have a net-neutral or net-positive effect on the business.” (cf Weiss, 2018) And our own MSU COE doctoral candidate Paul Artale proposed the following considerations in making decisions about flexible work strategies: “1) What are the key results you need from this job/position? 2) Is there only one way these tasks can be accomplished? 3) What is your concern regarding this proposed arrangement? 4) Would you be willing to try this alternative arrangement for 30-day period to gauge how well this proposed strategy will work?” (CUWFA Quarterly Review, Winter 2018) 

There are three common themes in these approaches: 

  1. having a credible, consistent rationale or approach for decisions based on the consequence to the work/unit, not on treating different individuals identically in attempt to “fair”
  2. focus on the job/task, not the individual person or reason for the request
  3. consideration of multiple means to the same end, not a change in the end goal of the work. 

We can further develop these themes into a usable rubric by asking what principles or questions can be used to make equitable decisions on requests?  The rationale for the decision is based on the consequence to the work/unit, not on treating individuals identically in attempt to be “fair”, when individuals are not identical (or worse, treating people differently with no clear rationale, which breeds resentment and mistrust). Elements of the process look like these:

  • Identify the impact and consider various means to the end, explore strategies, and then the decision is made to pilot and problem-solve, or not.
  • Process is consistent in the considerations applied, responsive to different situations, equitable in outcomes, transparent and accountable while protecting privacy of individuals’ situations.

Here are the specific questions being proposed:

  1. Focus on the job/task, not the individual person or reason for the request
    A. What is the nature of the task/job? Key responsibilities?
         i.   What outputs or indicators of success must be evident?
         ii.  What shows accountability on those indicators? (How do you know the job is done successfully, or well enough?)
    B. What is the impact [of flexibility] on the work/unit, if any?
         i.   Nature of the impact? Positive? Neutral?
         ii.  Probability of impact?
         iii.  Severity of impact?
         iv.  Scope of impact?
    C. If impact of being flexible is neutral or positive, why not be flexible? 
  2. Consideration of multiple means to the same end (not a change in the end goal)
    A.  Is there only one way to do this job? 
    B.  What is the evidence/reason for the need to do this job in a particular way/time frame/schedule?

Try exploring these questions, or others developed collectively among your colleagues, to see how effectively the question set helps make accountable, transparent, and individualized decisions.  It is my hope that this type of open and transparent approach can lead the way toward a more equitable, transparent and trustworthy process for decision-making on employee requests.


Artale, P. (2018) Looking at work-life from a results-based perspective. CUWFA Quarterly Review, Winter, 2018 p.10-11

Harrington, B. (no date) Creating a culture of flexibility: what it is, why it matters, how to make it work. Executive Briefing  Boston College Center for Work and Family Retrieved Feb. 20 2019 

[Meiorin] British Columbia (Public Service Employee Relations Comm.) v. B.C.G.E.U. (1999), 35 Canadian Human Rights Reporter D/257 (S.C.C)

Weiss, L. (2018) Flexibility: An important cornerstone. CUWFA Quarterly Review, Winter, 2018 p.10