Part-Time: The Best or the Worst of all Worlds? (Plus: Tips on How to Negotiate A Part-Time Schedule)

Sometimes, part-time is the best of all worlds. Other times, it’s undeniably the worst of all worlds—delivering part-time pay for full-time hours (not to mention the extra stress of worrying about how you’ll ever manage to accomplish it all.)
Anne Tergesen

Part-time work. It’s the Holy Grail for many moms (and some dads, too). When I tell other parents about my schedule—I'm in the office Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays—many are jealous. “If only I could find something like that,” a mother of two young children who recently relocated for her husband’s career said as we ran together in New York's Central Park.

I’ve worked part-time since my second child was born in 2000 and I’m grateful to my employer for allowing me to do so. With two young children and two careers—one of which (his) frequently requires long hours and travel—I felt we had too much to juggle. We needed a little bit of breathing room, if only so I could go grocery shopping at a more normal hour than 10 p.m. Luckily, my employer was O.K. with my proposal to cut back. Just as luckily, we could afford to take the financial hit.

Overall, I’ve loved the arrangement. At school pick-up on my two days at home, I find out about the seemingly small things that can have a big impact on a second grader’s day, such as struggles with times tables or with convincing the quarterback to pass to him at recess. We have time for adventures and for hanging out. I have the flexibility to go to school events and doctors’ appointments I’d otherwise have to delegate to a babysitter. If I were to return to full-time work, my kids (there are three of them now) would be fine. But I also know they enjoy my days at home. On most weekday mornings, my younger sons—who can’t yet keep track of the days of the week—ask hopefully, “Mommy, are you staying home today?”

But there are some serious downsides to working part-time. I’ve been lucky in that my employer hasn’t denied me promotions or opportunities to further develop my skills. But there’s no question that many employers put part-timers on the “mommy track”—denying them promotions, raises, and a shot at choice projects.

Moreover, even the best part-time arrangements don’t work well all the time. Sometimes, part-time is the best of all worlds. Other times, it’s undeniably the worst of all worlds—delivering part-time pay for full-time hours (not to mention the stress of worrying about how you’ll ever manage to accomplish it all.) Over the past year, as my work load has ramped-up for a variety of reasons, my part-time schedule has proved more of a headache than a blessing. I often work after my kids go to bed and on weekends. Sometimes, I write this blog late Saturday night, when the house is finally quiet. I’ve redoubled my efforts to manage my time efficiently—delegating more of the housework to our babysitter, for example. And I’ve worked on saying “no” more often—not only to my bosses, but also to requests from schools for my time. The bottom-line, though, is that I cannot give up this flexibility—at least not while my kids still ask, “Mommy, are you staying home today?”

If you think the benefits of part-time work may outweigh the risks to your career and finances, here are tips on how to effectively negotiate for a lighter load. They come from Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of “Mommy Wars” (Random House; $24.95). A mother of three, Steiner now works part-time at the Washington Post. She has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business.

1) The most important factor in successful negotiation is putting yourself in the decision-maker's position. Think about how the decision-maker's performance is measured, and try to come up with solutions that make him or her look good and meet key performance goals. This role-playing allows you to design an offer they can't refuse, such as: I'll deliver the same results for half the salary if you let me work half the hours. Few employers will turn down an offer that helps them achieve their career goals.

2) Before the formal negotiation discussion, ask the decision-maker for advice in a low-key, exploratory tone. "Sometimes I think about working part-time. Do you have any advice on how I could sell that to upper management?"

3) In negotiations, people often focus on getting to yes. But getting to no quickly is just as important, so that you can move on or find another strategy. Find out quickly whether the company is open to part-time employees. Ask, "Does anyone work part-time?" or "Would you ever consider someone part-time for this position?"

4) Know what you want. If a flexible schedule is worth just as much to you as part-time work, offer to work at home in exchange for leaving early every day.

5) Be very specific about what you agree to, in terms of hours, salary, performance and bonus, and get the agreement in writing if you can. Otherwise, your hard-won negotiations could evaporate when you get a new boss or experience another management change at work.

6) Once the deal is finalized, ask for help managing co-worker resentment. "In case other people at my level wonder why I've been given this arrangement, what should we tell them so they aren't jealous that I'm leaving early?"

7) Parting shot: Don't negotiate for part-time work then blow it all by working full-time for partial pay. Keep to your part-time schedule!

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