Mommy-Track Backlash

Are your company's family-friendly policies making nonparents feel like second-class citizens?

The Idea in Brief

"Please don't tell me I need to have a baby to have this time off!"

Have any of your childless employees said this to you—or thought it to themselves? Do your company's family-friendly policies—e.g., flex-time or reduced workloads for working parents—constitute unfair treatment for other employees?

Ask some childless workers, and they might say, "Yes! Why should our reasons for wanting lighter workloads be less important than working parents' reasons?" Ask working parents, and they may respond, "How else do you expect to retain talented employees who have kids?"

Both groups' concerns are valid. Your family-friendly policies may be unfair—if your company hasn't carefully considered its approach to work-life balance. And avoiding the issue can seriously damage everyone's morale and productivity.

The hapless manager in this HBR fictional case study faced this dilemma. But as the case commentators reveal, the issue doesn't need to be so loaded. In fact, it presents an excellent opportunity for companies to improve business results and enrich employees' lives. How to create this win-win situation? Design policies that explicitly respect all employees' and your company's needs.

The Idea in Practice

To support all employees' work, home, community, and personal goals, consider these guidelines:

Strive for Equity, not Equality

Childless employees have as much right to their personal lives as working parents. But treating everyone equitably doesn't mean treating them identically. Figure out how many reduced workloads your department can afford. Then, with your team, explore creative ideas that may appeal to different individuals. For instance:

• Let managers accumulate overtime hours they can take off later.

• Give bonuses and raises to employees who work holidays or regularly accept heavier workloads or difficult customers.

• Consider less time-consuming ways to satisfy customers. For example, some clients may welcome e-mail and voice mail from company contacts in place of face-to-face meetings.

Tie Compensation to Quality of Work, not Quantity of Dependents

To sustain employees' commitment to your company, make sure benefits packages don't favor parents over nonparents. Tie all compensation—including time off and other nonfinancial benefits—to work well done. Judge the relative value of each employee to the company and reward them accordingly—regardless of whether they're parents.

Involve Employees

As a manager, don't assume complete responsibility for making flexible schedules work. Instead, involve your employees in solving the problem:

• Allow interested employees—parents and nonparents—to submit proposals for flexible work arrangements. Each proposal should specify the work required during this period of time, the employee's strategy for completing that work while still satisfying customers, the proposed work hours, and so on.

• Encourage employees to collaboratively generate ideas for achieving flexibility while still accomplishing work; for example, by telecommuting or job sharing. An entire team may also devise new ways to handle work while also meeting personal needs.

• If you decline a request, explain why; e.g., "You haven't demonstrated how you'll meet your customers' needs." Ask the employee to revise the proposal.

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