Unless you were conceived in a test tube and raised by wolves, you probably have parents. Chances are also good that after bringing you into this world, someone out there was kind enough to hold your wobbly head, wipe your rear and feed you every two hours all through the day and night for months at a time – at the expense of their own sleep and sanity.
Regardless of how good a job you feel your parents did, the fact that you are reading this means they made some significant physical, material, and emotional sacrifices. They did all this, from an evolutionary perspective, to get you to point where you, too, could try your hand at propagating the species.
Obviously this has nothing to do with work. Or does it? Prior to becoming a parent I never gave the matter of parenting and work much thought. Now that I am a mom and a single parent to boot? Well, let’s just say that it’s a lot easier to feel compassion for other human beings when you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
The Family Friendly Workplace Debate
There are two very legitimate viewpoints in the family friendly workplace debate and I, personally, have been on both sides. I remember working for a consulting firm where I was completely incapable of maintaining friendships and relationships because I was on the road 40 (count ‘em…forty!) weeks a year.
I felt I was doing the work that enabled the family guys with desk jobs to go home to their children and spouses at the end of each day. I’d be home just long enough on the weekend to change my cats’ litterbox and vacuum the carpet. Dating? Hanging out with friends? Only if they were willing to hop on a plane and meet me at the Marriot Residence Inn in Huntington, West Virginia.
Until Sh!t Hit the Fan
Yet in my life as a mom, I have front row seats to the spectacle that trying to raise a child and engage in business can be in America. Just this morning I’d been patting myself on the back for what a good job I’d done prepping for the day. Lunches packed, clothes donned, bags waiting. I’d be in the office early and caffeinated to boot. I opened the door and scooped my daughter into my arms.
No, really? Every parent reading this right now knows what is coming. The poop was down the leg of her outfit, in her socks, on the rug. Buttons and snaps went flying as I undressed her and threw her in the tub. I ran to grab a diaper, an outfit, socks, a clean coat for her. I noticed that some of the goods had smeared my jeans. In my distraction I stepped on something squishy and warm on the area rug. Oh, God. C’mon!
This was not the first, and I am sure will not be the last, time that I watched my best laid and carefully sequenced plans unravel in a hurlyburly of projectile bodily fluids. We all have unexpected moments in our lives – to be sure – but there is nothing like a child, not yet hip to the concept of time and a world that revolves around anything other than their own rhythms, to bring your life into utter conflict with the rigidity of an adult world that values: timeliness, plans and structure.
After sharing one such war story with a colleague of mine he replied:
I remember when I was just starting out working at [a humungo telecom company] in a corp finance role, the kind of job that always required insane hours and weekends that the younger, single guys like me had such a huge advantage over the parents in the group. When the CFO needed me to stay and work, I did. I had no life to speak of anyway (save hitting up the pub). And after we stayed to 10 or 11pm, we all ended up in the pub anyway. And the boss usually expensed the whole deal. We had a woman on the team, smart, hard working etc. but she was married, had a couple of kids, so she was never part of the inside club of us dudes that worked late, got loads of face time with the big shots, then went out for drinks later. It was totally unfair, and she was never seen as important as the rest of us knuckleheads. That was a long time ago, but I am not sure how much has really changed. And it isn’t only a female issue. I have lots of the same problems today with my kid and my responsibilities. I think smarter organizations and managers are the ones that quit imposing ‘one size fits all’ rules and expectations on a workforce of individuals, with different needs, hopes, and responsibilities.
Each viewpoint could merit an entire post all its own, but I think my colleague got it totally right. My point here isn’t to say that one is right and the other wrong, but to highlight that consciously or not every workplace is probably more accommodating to one type of worker than the other. Those who feel that their life situation is valued less are probably likely to be less invested in the company as a whole.
Do You Know What Kind of Employer You Are in This Debate?
As an employer or recruiter? I know that it is tempting to want to please everyone, but the imperative falls on the employer to truly understand what kind of employer you are at the outset and to clearly articulate it to any would-be hires. Things to ask yourself —
- Are all of the managers and upwardly mobile members of your company childless, working long hours and weekends and likely to allow work to double as a social club? Perhaps then it is not best to tout opportunities for advancement to parents who have expressed an interest in work life balance or in being heavily involved in their children’s lives.
- Do your executives pride themselves on helping young families through on-site daycare, flex time, cafeteria plans and spouse/dependant benefits? Perhaps it’s best not to leave a young, hungry workaholic wondering why she can’t get a raise when people who choose to have families are eating up all of the company’s dough through additional use of health benefits.
- If your parents were ill or elderly and you needed to take time off to care for them do you feel this would hurt your chances to advance?
Take an honest assessment of the kind of work your company does or will do, what is required to succeed in your company and your industry and who is likely to have the best chances at success. What kinds of people get ahead and run your company? Regardless of what your policies say on paper, this is your cultural reality.
Articulate clearly and unapologetically which style best embodies your culture. From there, the candidate can take stock of the whole of his life and professional aspirations. If he is honest with himself, he’ll be best at determining whether or not the relationship is a good fit.
Good luck and happy diapering.
It’s hard to be humble when you’re bloggin’ straight out of Portland, Oregon. Tanya Barham is the Founder and CEO of Recess, a company where all the staff works like little elves at Christmastime to transform their client’s workplaces into healthy, happy, productive places akin to Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. Seriously. Of course, Santa’s fat, so they still have work to do.