Client wants 24/7 coverage but employee works part-time - what next?

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I was running a 'Managing People Risk' session yesterday at a global investment bank. The participants were a group of switched on senior managers (all men), who collectively had decades of people management experience.

The subject of work allocation and client coverage came up - specifically, in relation to employees who work four days a week (the majority of whom are, of course, are women). What do you do if, for example, a client asks that a full-time employee is allocated to them, instead of a part-timer? Or a client says they want 24/7 coverage and you know your part-time employee won't be able to do that? Or can a manager allocate the more valuable clients to full-time employees, on the assumption that they will be able to provide a 'better' service to those clients (and therefore generate more revenue for the firm)? And to what extent can/should you discuss these issues with your part-time employee?

There was some head scratching, but no-one seemed clear about how to tackle these questions. What was clear was how nervous many of the managers were about dealing with any issues relating to part-time female employees - whether that's in relation to work allocation, performance issues or client coverage.

So what's going on? Of course, as a former employment lawyer, I've seen plenty of examples of things going wrong in relation to managing women who have children and/or are working part-time. Evidently the managers in my session were also acutely aware of those risks. One manager in particular said, "If she's the only women in the team, it's more prudent to avoid dealing with the issue and wait for the next redundancy round".

However, if you unpick an employment dispute, what emerges is that the majority of disputes arise because of avoidance and a failure to communicate effectively. Fear of saying the wrong thing causes managers to shy away from those difficult conversations, and this can lead to a breakdown in trust, a lack of transparency, and a feeling of being ignored and undervalued. And to others in the team, failing to deal with issues looks like weak leadership.

So how can managers approach issues around client coverage and work allocation with confidence, rather than fear?

Most importantly, make the time and effort to build rapport and trust. If you've laid the foundations of a strong manager/report relationship, the employee will be more likely to feel that you're on her side. This will make all kinds of difficult conversations easier.

Secondly, treat her as the professional that she is and involve her, as far as possible, in decisions you have to make. If you need to discuss client coverage with her, be honest and transparent about it. Prepare for the conversation and plan how you're going to broach the issue with her - time spent in advance will usually result in saved time further down the line. Explain the issue, ask lots of open questions to seek her views on possible solutions to the issue.

Thirdly, don't necessarily assume that because she works part-time, she's uncontactable or can't work on her non-working days. Part-time employees are often highly engaged, very loyal and want to do a good job. And they may be more flexible than you've assumed. So, for example, how does she suggest ensuring adequate client coverage and dealing with urgent issues if they arise on her non-working day or over the weekend? She may have some creative suggestions that you hadn't thought of - perhaps delegating to a more junior member of the team who is hungry for development, and/or may say she's happy to be contacted or pick up work on her day off.

Fourthly, although it's easier said than done, don't be afraid to push back if a client is making unreasonable demands. For example, if a client is saying they'd much prefer to have a man covering their account, remember that acceding to such a request would amount to unlawful sex discrimination and also a breach an organisation's corporate values and equal opportunities policy. With the support of HR/senior management, you may need to educate the client on this.

Ultimately, of course, it's the employer who "owns" the client relationship, not individual employees. So if there is a good, strong and objective business reason, it may be appropriate to change client coverage to allocate a full-time employee to a particular client. However, if you are making this decision, you'll need to have fully considered all other options and discussed it with the part-time employee and your HR contact. And ideally you'll allocate her another client with similar revenue-generating opportunities. If you've handled the issue proactively and carefully, it's more likely that she will accept your decision without too much a loss of goodwill and engagement.

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