business

Michelle Carpenter: Aetna's Family Friendly Executive

Michelle M. Carpenter is living proof that employees who ask for reduced schedules can get promotions. Five years ago, Carpenter, 34, began working 30-hour weeks at Hartford-based Aetna Life & Casualty Co. after the birth of her first son. Two years later, she changed her schedule to a compressed week: 40 hours in four days. But that didn't stop Aetna from promoting Carpenter in September, 1991, from a senior consultant in its human-resources department to manager of its Work/Family Strategies unit.

The new job showed just how far Aetna had to go in the work-and-family area. Creating Carpenter's unit in 1988 was recognition of a serious problem. Aetna was losing hundreds of talented female employees--70% of its workers are women--who weren't returning after pregnancies. But for the unit's first three years, Carpenter says, employees only called "when they wanted information on child care."

GRUMBLINGS. Since Carpenter took over two years ago, she has tried to shed the unit's "babysitter" image to reflect an employee's need to balance work and home. She has talked up the benefits of flexible schedules to business units and helped employees find job-share partners. When a manager nixes an employee's request for flexibility, Carpenter will often intervene on the worker's behalf. But promoting flexibility hasn't been easy: Managers grumble about how such jobs are reported in their budgets, and non-Hartford employees say it's harder for them to get flex-time approval than for those in the home office.

Carpenter's biggest success was convincing Aetna that it's cheaper to keep trained workers--even in limited schedules--than to hire new ones. Now, roughly 2,000 of its 44,000 employees work part-time, share a job, work at home, or work a compressed workweek. The results: Aetna estimates it saves $1 million per year in not having to train new workers. And from July, 1991, to June, 1992, 88% of its workers who took family leave returned to work. An added benefit is good publicity. Aetna was named one of the top four "family-friendly" companies by the Families & Work Institute.

But Carpenter's work is far from over. "People have been resistant," says Leo Taylor, Carpenter's boss. Carpenter wants to "create a culture change" at Aetna about flex time. She also plans on using her experience in Aetna's offices in Denver, Syracuse, and Philadelphia to show that flexible schedules can work in far-flung business operations. Just don't look for her in the office on Fridays. That's the day she spends with her kids.

Chris Roush in Hartford

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