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A family-friendly work environment is a powerful recruiting and retention tool

My wife and I have a lot of conversations about work-life balance, or as I usually think of it, making sure I don’t use up too many “spouse points”.  Many early-stage companies do not have these issues top of mind, because so many founders are pre-children. However, even people without children often end up having them somehow.  

One of the best ways to recruit great people is to keep your doors open to candidates whom other employers are excluding for reasons other than merit.  That includes working parents.

As a manager, I’ve always tried to maintain a culture of understanding people’s personal calendar needs, e.g., childcare obligations.  Researchers from Stanford, the University of Munich, and the London School of Economics found that well-managed companies adopt family-friendly work policies more often than less-well-managed companies.  

I suggest creating a family-friendly culture is important for men just as much as women.  But in practice mothers tend to bear a disproportionate burden of childcare responsibilities, and so pay disproportionate attention to these issues.   My neighbor Jeff Kronisch, a Recruiting Director with Harris Allied, observes that when he reviews men’s resumes, he sees that they typically move around in various roles every few years with some horizontal and diagonal moves. Woman, on the other hand, often stay at the same role much longer and their career development is more linear.   My wife (who works for a large investment bank) immediately agreed with this observation.

I suggest three reasons why working parents tend to be more stable in their employment:

  1. Working parents tend to value flexibility in work arrangements more than the kidless, which makes them conservative with regard to job changes.  The typical process is to earn the trust of managers, and then figure out a work setup that meshes with a working parent’s personal schedule.  Once set up, they don’t want to risk moving to a new situation which may be less accommodating. The downside of a move is very clear, and the upside uncertain.  This makes some working parents less likely to raise their hand for a horizontal or a diagonal move.
  2. Most people focus on doing a good job in their existing role (Quadrant 1 activity, to use Steven Covey’s framework).  Working parents have less time than those without family obligations to research and look for other opportunities (Quadrant 2 activity in terms of career management).  Every career advice book recommends you network with recruiters; attend industry events; etc.  But when do you do that between parent-teacher conferences?
  3. A lot of past research has found that women, unlike men, typically wait to be ‘offered’ opportunities, rather than promote themselves to get the opportunities. For more on why this is happening, see the Levo League on why self-promotion is hard for women.

So, here are some ideas on what a growth firm can do to help develop working parents.  I listed these in suggested order of execution. The first five cost an employer zero or near zero dollars.  

  1. Publicize the option of flexible/reduced hours.  Many employees tend to believe that their employer is just paying flex-time a lip-service.  I know of a mom, “Nancy”, who received an offer to move to a competitive employer for a dramatic compensation increase.  Nancy was very unhappy with her long hours. A mutual friend spoke with Nancy’s manager, and pointed out that if Nancy had a flexible schedule that would allow her to leave the office early, she would likely stay.   The manager said, “No problem, that’s a great idea.” Nancy and her manager agreed on a schedule that worked for them both, and she has stayed. On paper, Nancy’s compensation has increased, but it’s prorated down to a lower level because she’s working reduced hours.  Result: Nancy’s cash compensation is unchanged, but she’s much happier and more loyal. 

    I suggest that all managers be educated that some people at the firm are working modified schedules, while getting promoted at or near the regular pace.  Openness about these arrangements will reduce the stigma associated with them. People work out reduced/flex schedules on the side with their managers and don’t talk about them with the CEO.  They don’t want to send a message that they prioritize their career below their family. No wonder working parents feel stuck once they work out an arrangement that works for them.Flextime workers should be out of the closet.  I use the “closet” metaphor deliberately; openness increases acceptance.

  1. When internal job opportunities are publicized, the hiring manager should specify if a job can be executed with flexible/reduced hours. Not all jobs can be done with non-standard hours.  The operating assumption right now is that the majority of jobs cannot.  I expect that in reality, only the minority cannot. For some working parents, inflexible office hours is a deal-breaker.  This is the first question some working parents want to ask when discussing a new opportunity, but that sends a bad message to a potential hiring manager.  The additional benefit here is that, if the statement is openly made about non-traditional work arrangements, more people (including men) are likely to request them, and the stigma around them will fade.
    A word on “non-standard” hours: I mean a schedule that defines the limits of how much time and during which hours an employee can focus on work to deliver sustainable results.  For some people it means getting in early and leaving early, for others – just the opposite. It does not mean occasionally logging in from home when one is expecting new furniture delivery or has to get in late several times a year.  The later is a basal degree of flexibility that, presumably, most professional workers already enjoy.
  1. The firm should offer training to managers in how to manage people with nonstandard schedules.  I think it’s similar, but far easier, than managing people offshore. It requires clarity in communicating priorities, time-requirements, deliverable formats, necessary level of detail, etc.  
  1. Employees with reduced/flex schedules should be given the same mobility and promotion opportunities as those with traditional schedules.  The firm should make it easier for people with non-standard schedules to get diverse experience, by allowing them to transfer these arrangements to other internal opportunities where possible and helping them make these arrangements work.  It goes without saying that the promotions should also be “hours”-blind, based exclusively on how much value the employee is adding. Consistently working long hours should be considered a sign of inefficiency, poor time management, and propensity to burnout, not a necessary credential to promotion.  
  1. Promote a “fitness office”. A challenge for both women and men is maintaining some reasonable degree of fitness while balancing work and family demands.  You’ll make it easier for people to work a full day by designing the office to promote fitness while working, rather than slotting in fitness as a 20-minute activity before work.  For more on this see my post on the fitness office.
  1. Both parents should have the option of parental leave.  The typical parental leave policy says that the “primary caregiver” can have a 4-months leave.  In the vast majority of cases, that’s a woman. If dads were encouraged to take longer parenting leaves, it would help with work/life balance for both men and women.  If senior men were to take a leave of 1-4 months, a standard set of fair practices would evolve for dealing with such situation and everyone would benefit. Additionally, historically, I have learned the most when my bosses would go on vacation and I had to fill in on the projects.

For some additional reading on this topic, I suggest additionally look at Github and Kimball, a Fortune 500 public company.  Both have been very public about their strategy to create a family-friendly workplace environment.

(c) 2019 Entrepeneur, which previously published this article

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