After 45 years in education, I’ve been denied a part-time position. What are my options?

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week, an ultimatum of full-time work or resignation, attracting new clients as a freelancer and the question of safety and interstate travel during Omicron.

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I have worked as a school counsellor since 1976. Six years ago, when I turned 70, I decided to cut down on full-time work and work three days per week (taking two days as leave without pay). Last year, the principal of my school declined to approve this arrangement including my request to go part-time. My option is to resign – which I do not want to do – or resume working full-time (which I have now done). I know qualified school counsellors (as registered psychologists) are in short supply and that principals are under pressure not to approve leave. However, I believe I had a good strategy for prolonging my working life. I appealed to my principal’s line manager about this decision and was unsuccessful. Do you see any options for me, besides full-time work or resignation?

I am stunned that at the age of 76 and after having provided 45 years of service as a school counsellor, your principal is not able to find a solution that meets both the needs of the school and your own requirements. Does your principal expect you to continue to work full time until you are 80? 90? Is there any further appeal you can make through the school or your Education Department? I suspect you may have a bit more leverage than you think, especially if school counsellors are in short supply.

Have you considered suggesting some kind of job share arrangement? This would enable potential mentoring opportunities for a new school counsellor to learn from you. Either way, your principal is going to need to find a solution sooner or later and if I were them I would want to keep you on as long as you were willing and encourage you to pass on your experience, knowledge, commitment and passion to the next generation.

I’ve recently handed in my notice and plan to set up as a freelancer. My industry relies on word of mouth and in my experience, people are more likely to pick up the phone and call someone to ask about a former employee. I like the idea of having something in writing, although I’ve never been asked to show a reference letter before. What do you think, are reference letters a relic from the past or still useful?

There is no doubt that for some roles and during some stages of your career, written references are useful. Often casuals can find them helpful in hospitality and retail, for example. But in other positions, a phone reference is far more likely to be used.

As a freelancer, will you be having a website to promote the work you do? If so, it might be worth asking your former boss (and future clients) for a written testimonial to use on your website. This will allow you to promote your offering and let potential clients know more about you. You might want to start doing that with all your future clients as well.

I have a young child, am pregnant and double vaccinated. My employer, who knows about my pregnancy, has asked me to fly to Sydney and Melbourne for work conferences. Because of the high COVID-19 case numbers and my pregnancy I expressed concerns about this and asked to join remotely. My employer implied I was overreacting and because I’m vaccinated should be safe to attend in person. Despite being vaccinated I’m worried about the risk of getting COVID and passing it on to my unborn child and toddler. What are my rights, if any, to refuse work-related travel because of COVID?

I don’t think it is reasonable to expect anyone, let alone if you are pregnant, to have to travel if they have health concerns where a virtual option is available. There will be times where work travel is essential but attending a conference doesn’t seem to be that time. I would revisit this with your boss and reiterate your commitment to your job but let them know that in this particular situation you would like to request that you dial in remotely for your own health and safety. If that fails, is there someone at work you trust that you can speak to about your options?

Send your questions about work, careers and leadership to [email protected]. Your name and any identifying information will not be used. Letters may be edited.

Dr Kirstin Ferguson is an award-winning leader, executive coach and public speaker. Her upcoming book Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership will be published by Penguin Random House.

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