Making Companies More `Family Friendly'

It's no secret that some corporate bureaucracies aren't much help when it comes to the personal problems of their employees. And that goes double for problems besetting employees' families. This is despite plenty of evidence that unattended family problems lead to increased absenteeism, tardiness, and stress-related health problems.

Striking new testimony that most companies do little can be found in a 'family-friendly' index compiled by an independent research group from a survey of the benefits and programs offered by 188 major employers. These companies averaged a score of only 68 points out of a possible 610 on the index, and only two scored higher than 200. The usual reasons cited by companies for a poor showing are cost and the possibility that giving benefits to one group may amount to discrimination against another. But such reasoning overlooks that employees are human capital, to be invested in and maintained with at least as much care as plant or machinery. Besides, there is substantial downside risk in ignoring family welfare. Once the recession ends, many economists expect shortages of skilled workers to persist through the 1990s. Companies without family-friendly policies could find it tough to recruit and keep highly motivated, productive employees, especially if their competitors get a head start.

The questions used in compiling the index amount to a checklist of programs and benefits, including flexible work arrangements, on-site centers or vouchers for child or elder care, and rating of managers in part on how well they deal with family issues. Not every suggestion applies to every company. But for employers who believe that a happy worker is a productive one, there's plenty of food for thought.

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