So…How Was Your Working Parents Day?

Just wondering…did this week’s recognition of Working Parents Day change your life in any way?  I’m not a betting person yet I’ll wager not.  Yesterday was likely the same as today and tomorrow will likely follow suit.

Here’s the thing…I’m all for bringing attention to causes.  Hell…I support many myself and applaud those who work tirelessly to raise awareness and generate support for anything that will help another person.  Or many other people.  But I do have a problem with a day coined “Working Parents Day” when the reality is that a day hardly does this cause justice.

I’ve said it before and will continue to say it — working parents have a herculean task that faces them at sunrise every day and doesn’t end until their weary bodies fall into bed at night.  And why do they do it?  Because they value their efforts and contributions at work as they hold dear their roles as Moms and Dads.  As they should.  And they shouldn’t have to choose.

Married or single parent.  One child or several.  Raising a middle schooler or guiding a college junior.  Family support or at the rodeo alone.  Self-employed or employee.  Each and every working parent deserves recognition that goes far beyond the day set aside to do so.  Instead of assigning a name to a day, why don’t we start to truly listen to working parents and do better at meeting their needs.

Many companies are definitely doing a great job of providing a multitude of supports and programs to help all their employees be productive, engaged, and healthy.  Yet many companies are still far behind the curve and even in those organizations where exceptional benefits are the norm, working parents continue to struggle.  And part of the reason is that their needs, for better or worse, are different.  And these differences mean different solutions.

We tend to take notice when a societal crisis hits and then scramble to try to figure out why it happened and what immediate solution can mitigate the seriousness of the situation.  It’s the reactive vs. proactive mode of operation, one that rarely succeeds.  And if we really take a minute to examine this crisis, it involves our children who require far more from their parents today — and I don’t mean more i-Phones or designer clothes — than ever before.  They need time.  Years ago it was latchkey kids.  Today it’s an explosion of afterschool programs to keep children involved vs. walking the streets.  But the buck begins and ends with parents and many are unable to stretch any farther.

So for those who created Working Parents Day, I say forget the day.  Instead, let’s take a look at how we can help the Dad who can’t get out of the office before 6:00 knowing his son’s softball games start at 4:30.  Or the Mom whose childcare provider continues to call in sick…at 7:00 when she leaves for work at 7:15.  These are real issues facing real people with real children depending upon them to find solutions.

If this day is celebrated next year, how about giving every working parent Working Parents Day off.  Now this would make a difference.

Beating The Drum A Bit More...Telecommuting, Etc.

For the past few weeks, everyone has been either talking or reading about Marissa Mayer's decision to end telecommuting for Yahoo employees.  I've read just about every viewpoint - those who support it, those who vehemently disagree with it, those who believe it's smart business, those who are waiting for Mayer to realize the error of her ways. I've already made my perspectives clear on it - it's a bad business decision, the impact of which go beyond the in-house fallout and anticipated revolving door of exit interviews (if Yahoo even cares to listen) to broader concerns about how the CEO world is going to react/respond.  No question this is a major blow to the years of progress made in the workplace flexibility arena.  But there's a little more to be said.

I just read a 2011 Forbes article  - "What Employees Want More Than A Raise," which reviewed the top drivers of retention.  Care to guess one which was at the top of the list?  Respect.  Hum ... respect.  Let's see...

  • Can a company be viewed as "respecting" its employees if their diverse needs and complicated work/life balance issues are ignored...or worse, shoved aside entirely?
  • Can a company support any contention that it "respects" its employees if management institutes mandates (i.e. you will be at your desk every day at 9:00 a.m.) vs. opening up for discussion - yes, across the organization - operational changes being evaluated (i.e. we're exploring ways to modify our telecommuting policies and are asking for your input)?
  • Can a company view themselves as "respecting" the manager/employee relationship when decisions are made based upon explanations (i.e. the need for communication and collaboration) that simply don't add up?

It's probably clear where I'm heading with this...the answer is no.  Respect is far more than a term in a mission statement or something taught in a Management 101 class.  It's recognizing that communication happens top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, and side-to-side.  It's understanding that collaboration means working together on difficult issues, appreciating the impact major decisions will have on employees, and offering real, viable options that truly demonstrate that every employee is valuable and, you got it, respected.

No...I don't see anything about this decision that demonstrates respect.  Rather, whether it was Yahoo's way to weed out non-performers or demonstrate that they can exercise control over their workforce, it's pretty apparent - no matter your perspective on the decision itself - that "respect" for its employees was not even a discussion point during that meeting.

So What Makes A Best Company "Best"

I admit it...I love reading the annual "best company" lists.   Seeing what new organizations have finally reached the holy grail and those that continue to rise to the top year after year by setting the employee engagement and retention bar high.   It's an added bonus to read about the "perks", or what I call "mini-benefits", companies provide for employees.  They get more creative (or outrageous) year after year. This year's Fortune list is no different.   To not share a few of my favorites would be like recommending a vacation spot sans photos so yes, a handful follow below.  But first is a shout-out to the tenacious HR and work/life pros whose efforts to sell these ideas to the C-suite when budgets are being cut is exactly what HR is all about...remaining firmly focused on meeting and exceeding the needs of their employees.

So which companies really grabbed my attention this year and why?

  • Boston Consulting Group - issues a "red zone report" to flag when an employee is working excessive long weeks (now *this* is a genuine focus on work/life balance and concerns for the health/stress of employees).
  • Salesforce.com - provides 48 hours of paid time to volunteer (great way to support having a life and involvement outside of the office).
  • Alston & Bird - provides health coverage for autism, infertility, and marriage counseling (talk about an organization that understands and is willing to support life's "real" issues and complexities).
  • ARI - offers unlimited tuition reimbursement (this is career development on overdrive and supports the importance of continuous learning).
  • Teksystems - encourages employees to "share almost everything" about their personal lives (not sure how this is implemented, but it definitely establishes an environment geared toward breaking down barriers on issues that are typically left unspoken).

It's easy to see why these organizations achieved "best company" status.  Their bottom-line success is directly tied to an organizational culture that "walks the talk" when it comes to understanding and supporting the diverse nature of their respective workforces and their needs.  HR may have "made the case," however these organizations clearly have leaders who set the tone. But wait...there's more.

The dog talent show and bring your dog to work day (not sure why all the focus on dogs - what about cats or rabbits).  Horseshoe throwing lessons.  "Pie your manager" competitions.  Mid-morning cider and donuts.  Steak cookouts.  On-site farmers markets (very cool, I must say).

Are these fun?  Unusual?  Great fodder for social media photos?  You bet, but there's a huge difference between providing health coverage for infertility and offering donuts with cider (and I enjoy cider too).  The former drills down into issues - often complex, messy, and human - whereas the latter is like sprinkles on a cake - they may make things look better, but don't necessarily change the taste.

Companies that have achieved "best" status have done so because they've addressed the real needs and tough issues facing their employees.  They've met employees where they are in their lives with an honest recognition and response, demonstrating their willingness - and desire - to do something about the life cycle challenges their employees are facing today or may face tomorrow.

Ask any employee who works at these organizations and I guarantee that a nod of approval to volunteer in their community or to be told to reduce their work hours to better manage their stress trumps bringing their dog to work for the day anytime.  We're a culture that often uses words without really understanding their meaning.  For this year's 100 "best" companies, the meaning is as it is intended ... "that which is the most excellent, outstanding, or desirable."

Work Or Family...It's All About Relationships

The similarities between workplaces and families are striking. There's the leader or the parent... unproductive staff meetings or holiday gatherings where few people are happy...employees doing more with less or limits on eating out... disengaged employees or family strife with teenagers.

If you really think about it, the one key difference between the workplace and the family is that workplaces pay their employees for the work they do whereas family members pay - in many ways - just for being part of the family.

I just read an article in Forbes entitled "Why Are So Many Employees Disengaged" and the research study cited concludes that the #1 reason is the relationship with the employee's supervisor, costing employers $11 billion annually in employee turnover.  No surprise here, because we know that the attitudes and actions of the person/people at the top frame the experiences of everyone else.  Whether at work or home, it all boils down to the human level or, relationships.

When we look at top workplaces and companies striving for "best places to work" status, we often look at things like professional development, benefits or "perks," or advancement opportunities as the core drivers.  No question these things help keep employees happy and may be easier to measure, but it's the intangibles - often referred to as the softer, "feel good" things - that make for those workplaces and families we'd like to call our own or strive to create.

Relationships are built on people feeling listened to, respected, involved, and appreciated.  It's sustained when everyone feels "part of" and knows - deep down at a personal level - that they're a needed cog in the wheel to move things forward.  It's not surprising at all that the key issue related to disengagement involves the relationships (or lack thereof) of the people who are most closely aligned.  Rather, the question to be asked is what's being done to improve these fractured or non-existent relationships and is it a priority?

The workplace defines what people do.  Families define who people are.  Each revolves around relationships ... more complex and harder to quantify, but enviable if you don't have them and fortunate if you do.  Whether at work or at home, it's the quality of the relationships of the people involved that makes all the difference.   As a proverb says, "No road is long with good company."

A Discussion Whose Time Has Come

I love pets.  Dogs, cats...wonderful creatures.  They share our homes and make us laugh in YouTube videos.   They're special members of our families.  I used to have pets so I get it.  Truly.  And I know that comparing a Collie or short-hair to anything else is probably unfair.  But life isn't always fair. In the world of work/life where companies are striving for employees be happy and productive, many are offering "pet insurance" to ease the financial pressures pet owners face.  The thinking is that employees will worry less about the vet bill and more about the looming client deadline.  I'm in favor of anything that helps an employee balance -- or better juggle -- their often competing life responsibilities.  Which brings me to the comparison.

I just read an article where the focus was parents talking to parents about what to expect when their child is diagnosed with autism.  Nothing new, as I've spent 14 years *listening* in corporations, online forums, parent support groups, and a host of other places where parents come together to share the "real scoop" on life pre and post an autism diagnosis.  I've heard most of it and with every story heard, I find myself shaking my head both in disbelief and admiration.

In this recent article, one parent said: "Be prepared to go into debt, borrow from family, increase your mortgage, take out a line of credit to pay for interventions...".   Go into debt.  Borrow from family.  Take out a line of credit. Can you imagine being a parent who needs to take out a loan to get your child what he or she needs?  Sitting down with your parents to ask them for money so their grandchild can learn to speak ... or make a friend?  Trying to decide whether you can keep working to pay off that loan or repay your parents (not to mention pay for all the *other* needs) when the time you'll need to orchestrate your child's daily and weekly schedule will take far more than two weeks paid vacation or short-term family leave?

Which brings me back to pets.   I realize this may not be popular with the "pet set," but if -- as a former HR Director with a choice to make -- I had to choose between supporting the needs of employees with children or pets, children win.  Hands-down.  Before the barbs are tossed, it's important to say that in an ideal world, every employee's needs would be supported so that everyone would be fully productive and engaged.  But this isn't the ideal world and choices are part of the equation.  Companies grapple with decisions about where to put their limited benefits dollars and how many choices to offer employees when benefits options are included.  But -- and my shield is poised -- there's a huge difference between helping an employee pay for a flea treatment vs. helping an employee raise a child.

Children who will attend college, work in companies, pay taxes.  Children who will make contributions to science, technology, performing arts.  Who will move from dependent children to independent adults poised to purchase the products and services your company produces or provides.  No one would ever want less for a child.  And no one would ever dare limit a child by a diagnosis.  Yet the future for these children rests on their parents -- current working parents facing choices that defy description.

So it's baffling to me that smart, forward-thinking companies seem to place more importance on helping employees care for their pets than to raise their children.   Is it a lack of understanding or a reluctance to get involved?  Or is it a preconceived idea that children with autism will not reach the expectations that many consider to be "typical" of children moving into adulthood so why bother?  No, it can't be that.

A number of years ago, I worked with parents who sold their home and moved into a small, two-bedroom apartment turning their second bedroom into a therapy room for their child.  They also sold their second car and carried their "change of season" clothes packed into large plastic containers in the trunk of their car.  And just recently, I met parents who are in the throws of bankruptcy because they used every penny they had and maxed out their credit cards to support their child's needs.  Life-altering choices are being made by employees every day to help their children.

Companies play a pivotal role here.   The same subsidies offered to employees trying to adopt should be offered to employees to help offset the staggering costs of therapies or home-interventions.  Discounts on legal support should be extended to employees in need of a special education attorney to secure a private school for their child.  On-site health fairs should include experts in special needs and special education to enable employees to access supports and resources easily and more cost-effectively.  With health and stress-reduction being core areas of focus in the workplace, few things compare to the financial, family, work, and personal pressures on an employee raising a 6-year-old or 13-year-old with autism.

I have nothing against pets.  Really, no problems at all.  But a problem does exist when supporting tails that wag or fluffy balls that purr seem to take priority.  A disconnect exists -- companies are striving and competing to achieve "best company" status yet are overlooking the growing number of working parents desperately needing a lifeline.  Pets and children can live together beautifully both at home and in the workplace, however when a choice needs to be made, the child has to win every time.

Train To Sustain & Retain

I count myself among those who believe that organizations can adapt and respond to fast-changing employee needs.  And indeed, many organizations do provide a range of programs and supports geared toward meeting some of these needs and keeping their employees happy or, at least, helping them to better manage their work/life responsibilities. Yet there is a critical piece of the equation often lacking yet it surfaces periodically in articles and commentaries about today's work environment and deserves more focus -- the importance of training and supporting those charged with actually implementing many of these programs and supports.  Take flexible work options, for example.  Policies may be in place for employees to be able to work flexibly yet many state that they do not take advantage of these policies for fear that it will preclude them from ... fill-in-the-blank -- being considered for the next promotion, being assigned the upcoming project, or being asked to travel unexpectedly to a client site.

Policies that are not utilized need to be examined and more times than not, there are obstacles both on the "giving" and "receiving" side.  Without question, the obstacles are rooted in a lack of understanding, familiarity, and skills to enable both parties to have a win/win so that the programs and supports -- often touted as being a critical part of the organization's retention efforts -- are actually used.  With the ever-increasing competition to be recognized as a "best" company, organizations need to move beyond the offering stage to ensure that what's offered in writing is being used in practice.

If a manager has never managed someone who is telecommuting two days per week, they need training to understand how to do it.  This makes the policy sustainable because, well...it's being used.  If an employee needs or wants to utilize a program or service yet is reluctant to do so for whatever the reason, internal communications vehicles need to assess this and determine three things:

  1. What is the obstacle (or obstacles);
  2. What is the reason for the obstacle/s; and
  3. What do we need to do to remove the obstacle/s to generate and increase usage.

It usually falls to an employee's manager to give the "go-ahead" whether verbally or otherwise to proceed.  And while the words can be "yes," more times than not it's the non-verbals that convey otherwise.  Organization-wide training is essential when any new program or service is offered and the training needs to go well beyond describing what it is, who can use it, how much it will cost, and when it begins.  The training needs to continue well into implementation for there's a huge difference between offering something and using it.

Value-added training drills down into the culture of the organization to understand the opportunities and barriers.  It enables organizations to know how change needs to be introduced and what adjustments need to be made along the way.  As we all know, change often comes slowly and this is definitely the case when an organization is providing employees with an opportunity to do things differently.  Even with the good stuff, it's essential to train in order to sustain and to retain.