Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Working Life: Parents in the Workplace
More thoughts from this week's radio show...

In this segment of The Working Life, Carol Blymire and I discuss work-life balance and tensions between parents and non-parents in the workplace. We also discussed how organizations are making more concessions for working parents and whether or not these benefits were “fair” to non-parents. Below are some of the ideas we discussed.

Carol’s Question: One issue I know that has gotten a lot of media coverage lately is that people without children feel discriminated against in the workplace. They feel as if parents, mothers in particular, get special treatment – whether it’s flex-time hours or the ability to leave early or not have to travel because of their child’s schedule. Is this fair?

My Thoughts: Fairness is a tough parameter to put around this issue. Fairness is a notoriously slippery slope when we talk about human social systems….I mean is it really “fair” that Paris Hilton makes more money in one hour than a public school teacher makes in a year? So on this topic, it really shouldn’t be about what is “fair” as much as it should be about what are the best solutions for the organization and all of its stakeholders.

For those people who do not have children (and I am one of them) it is important to remember that children have historically (and rightly so) been considered a “public good.” This means that all of society in some ways benefit economically and socially from the presence and propagation of children. As annoying as they may be at that French restaurant tonight—remember, you’re gonna need that screaming kid and (millions just like him) to become a tax paying and consumer buying citizen in order to support and maintain an economy that makes it possible for you to even have a job. (Not to mention, you’re definitely going to need them to support our social security system when you’re ready to retire.) So a little long-term perspective and reframing can be very useful to non-parents in the workplace.

Another useful thing for non-parents to remember is that historically, the workplace has NOT been family friendly. We are just now seeing the pendulum swing towards making the workplace more flexible for the working parent. It’s only been 13 years since the Family Leave Act was passed into law. So while we are now seeing unprecedented workplace flexibility for working parents, make no mistake about it—the workplace is still very much geared towards those who are not primary caretakers of children.

Carol’s Question: On the other side of the coin are the parents. HR executives say that it is more expensive to find a new employee for a position, than retain and be flexible with someone who already has that job. Should people with children be able to have greater flexibility than those who don’t?

My Thoughts: Organizations need to be responsive to all their stakeholders—including their employees. When we talk about giving more flexibility to employees with children, we’re talking mostly about women in the workplace. While today’s fathers are clearly more active parents than ever before, only 6% of them are considered the “primary” caretaker. And if we’re talking about working women in general—we’re talking about over 46% of the current American workforce. So if you consider that 70% of mothers participate in the workplace—we’re talking about a significant (and growing) portion of our workforce. So to answer your question, yes, organizations are facing significant challenges regarding their workforce. A recent study showed that a majority of men (74%) and women (83%) would choose a job with lower pay in favor of an employer who offered a more flexible family-friendly work environment.

And yes, departing workers can be a very costly proposition for today’s business leaders. In most cases it is much more expensive for an employer to replace, rehire and retrain skilled workers than to offer some reasonable accommodations. Organizations who do not realize this run the risk of losing a significant portion of their talent pool.

Carol’s Question: We hear a lot about work-life balance, and that companies are even being given awards for their work-life programs. Do employers have an obligation to encourage a healthy balance, or is it up to the employee – or is it a combination of both?

My Thoughts: One thing I think we often forget is that we live in a democratic capitalist society. That means we live and work in a vibrant marketplace where people are free to vote with their feet (and their wallets). Organizations do not have an innate obligation to provide anything to their workers except fair compensation for work performed—as defined by our legal system and/or our marketplace. So, no, our companies do not have an “obligation” to encourage a healthy work/life balance.

They do, however, have an inherent self-interest to do so. It is in their self-interest to create a workplace that attracts and retains a productive workforce and talent pool. They need a talented workforce to survive and thrive marketplace competition and they also need to compete with other businesses to find that workforce. And this is what we are seeing in today’s job marketplace. Organizations are becoming more responsive to workers demands because workers demands are dramatically changing from a generation ago. Gone are the days when you signed up to work for a company for life. Thanks in a large part to Generation X, today’s workforce has a very different notion of the employer/employee social contract. Workers are much more likely to change jobs in search of better opportunities than ever before. In other words, they vote with their feet.

As expectations on both sides shift and evolve, more accommodations and negotiations will take place between the employer and employee to design a more desirable and appropriate social contract. So this is a shared obligation—employees must be willing to ask for what they want and employers must be willing to negotiate those wants. Employees must also be willing to make active choices to reinforce their balance requests. Remember—everyone has a right to at least ask for what they want!

Carol’s Question: So lets say you do want to improve your work/life balance—regardless of whether or not you have children. How do you approach your supervisor? I can’t imagine you can just go in and say, “you know, I’ve decided I only want to work from 10 – 3 from now on….

My Thoughts: The best advice I can give you is to remember that to your organization this is a business issue even though to you it may be a personal matter. So you must present your case as a business professional. Organizations care about results, productivity, bottom line, profits, effectiveness, efficiency, etc. etc. Be sure you truly understand what is important to your employer and their needs. Appeal to their self-interest–not yours. Show how your proposal equals good business. And finally, be flexible yourself—remember this is a negotiation—your employer may have legitimate concerns. Offer a variety of options and even a test run. Remember, it may take several conversations to win them over.

Carol’s Question: Finally, what advice do you have for both sides of the parent/non-parent debate in the workplace? How can both parties work better together and avoid resentment?

My Thoughts: Stop thinking of this issue as a debate or an “either/or” proposition. That presupposes that one side wins and one side loses. Parents and non-parents are not on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to creating healthy workplaces. Instead, start thinking about how everyone can help create workplaces that are flexible and responsive to the needs of all workers. Remember the adage: “A high tide raises all boats.” Instead of resenting each other, parents and non-parents should realize the power they hold to effect change when they pull together.

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