The Family-Friendly Test

How can a job candidate feel out how receptive a company is to his family's special needs -- without turning off the interviewer?

Q: How do I find out if an employer is "family-oriented"? I am the husband of a woman with multiple sclerosis and the father of a young daughter. Therefore, I want to work for a company that is understanding about employees' lives off the job. Should I be frank and tell a potential employer up front about my family needs? -- K.R.


There are two steps you need to take before approaching employers. The first is to define precisely what you mean by "family-oriented," says Pam Lassiter, principal at Lassiter Consulting, a career-management agency in suburban Boston. Given your wife's condition, is your main concern that the company offer a generous family medical plan? Or do you want to make sure you have adequate time to care for your wife and daughter? Or perhaps you have other needs? The answers will help shape your job hunt and the questions you ask once you're being courted for a job.

Step No. 2: Plunge yourself into research to pinpoint companies with reputations for family-friendliness. Scour corporate Web sites, which often detail a company's perks and benefits. And look for the many "best company" lists compiled by business publications.


  Perhaps the best known is Working Mother magazine's annual 100 Best Companies for Working Mothers nationwide survey. Some communities have local lists. Child-care centers, especially ones that receive corporate support, should be able to provide you with the names of organizations or publications with "best of" lists in your area, says Paul Rupert, president of Rupert & Co., a Washington (D.C.) workplace-consulting company.

A strong word of caution: Don't rely on these lists to tell you the full story. "Keep in mind that oftentimes these surveys reflect what it's like in portions of a firm but not in all its workplaces," says Kathleen Christensen, director of the Working Families Program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City.

Now you're ready to approach employers. It's a good idea not to bring up your family situation in interviews: The last thing a hiring manager wants to hear is why a candidate can't do the job. "You have to think about why it's in the best interests of the employer to hire you," Lassiter says. "They will never do it just to be nice." Therefore, you need to understand fully what the position entails and then decide whether you can do it. If you can't, the reasons are irrelevant. If you can, be confident and win over the interviewer.


  So, how do you get the information you need before signing on? First, have a detailed discussion with your future boss about his or her expectations. Find out the name of the person you'd be replacing to get another view. Talk to anyone you know who works at the company. Most important, seek out those who are most familiar with your department -- potential colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates -- and pump them for information, says Helen Scully, president of Scully Career Associates, a career-management company in Sacramento, Calif. It's perfectly O.K. to ask your would-be boss to introduce you to them.

Also, luckily for you, it's increasingly common for job candidates to request a confidential meeting with human resources, Scully says. That's the time to ask about medical benefits and flexible-scheduling programs.

If you need more time than a flexible schedule would allow, consider looking for a part-time job. Sometimes, the future boss will whittle a few hours off a full-time position. But generally, supervisors want to get to know your work first. That means being full-time for at least a few months, Rupert says.


  If you work for a larger company, you could well be entitled by federal law to time off to care for a sick relative. But there are many caveats in the Family & Medical Leave Act, among them a requirement that the leave-taker be on the job for at least a year. Which brings up another point: Learn your rights. A good place to start is the Labor Dept.'s FMLA description ( But don't start a job interview by asking, "Is your company covered by the FMLA?" That would hardly endear you to a boss eager to see you roll up your sleeves.

Good luck with the job hunt. If you're as conscientious about your work as you are about caring for your wife and daughter, an employer should be delighted to have you.

By Pamela Mendels in New York

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