Making Workplace Flexibility Policies Fair For All

fair

The recent article, “How Managers Can Be Fair About Flexibility for Parents and Non-Parents Alike,” by Joan C. Williams and Marina Multhaup takes on two topics more commonly written about separately: how parents and non-parents face bias at work.

Both Camps Experience Bias

For mothers, Williams and Multhaup call it the “Maternal Wall,” “meaning how women who have always been successful at work sometimes find their competence questioned when they take maternity leave or ask for a flexible work schedule.” They also mention how “bias can affect fathers, too, when they seek even modest accommodations for caregiving.”

Williams and Multhaup claim “the data [are] clear that parents are more likely to face bias at work,” and that sometimes…”people without children find that their managers are more understanding of working parents’ need for flexibility, while expecting childless or unmarried staff to pick up the slack because they ‘have no life.’” While I agree that both camps experience bias, are parents more likely to? And sometimes managers assume those with no children will certainly have the time to pick up the slack? On both counts I bet partnered and single non-parents might disagree.

In any case, they discuss how managers can employ “flexibility policies that are fair to everyone.” How to do it?

Simple answer: if you give people time off work to run a marathon, you should give people time off work to take care of their sick kid. If you give people time off work because the nanny didn’t show up again, you should give people time off work because their grandmother is sick…

Though people’s reasons for needing flexibility at work may differ, the principles for managing that flexibility are the same.

And those principles should take one’s personal reproductive choices out of the equation. Williams and Multhaup give guidelines for managers to be fair whether employees are parents or not. Here I want to comment on three that would particularly help puncture pronatalist workplace culture in this area.

“In general, more-flexible schedules work better for everyone.”

While obvious how this guideline can benefit parents, flexible hours help non-parents be more productive and balance their lives as well. The only difference: the flexible schedule of non-parents will not include anything related to the raising of children. Well, even that might not be true. They may be aunts or uncles involved with children in their extended families, or assisting friends with child-care related activities.

As Williams and Multhaup mention, not all jobs lend themselves to flex-time or remote work. However, the main idea here is for managers to try and offer workable options for all of their employees, not just those who decided to bring children into their personal lives.

“If you have a work-from-home policy, it should be reason-neutral.” 

This is an excellent example of what a post-pronatalist workplace culture would include. When it comes to work-from-home, all too often anything related to parenthood trumps other activities. As Williams and Multhaup write:

It’s generally not a good idea to have to judge different peoples’ ‘reasons’ for working from home. This leads to uncomfortable territory: does a sick baby trump dying grandparent? Instead, when people work from home, just have them say “I’m working from home.” Don’t make people explain why.

Leaving reasons out of the equation keeps all activities on a level playing field. One is not better than another, or more important than another. Rather than the reasons why they work-from-home, workplace culture focuses on structuring time to get the job done. Which leads to #3:

“Measure outcomes, not process.”

Similarly stated, measure “employees by the work that they produce, rather than the manner in which they produce it.” It’s not about face time at the office. It’s about results. In a nutshell, “Save your scrutiny for employees’ work products, not their whereabouts.” I’d add: or any of their personal choices outside work, like whether they are parents or not.

Policies

Williams and Multhaup also talk about important policies to have in the workplace to support these guidelines. They list these policies: parental leave, paid sick days, paid personal days, paid bereavement days, and disability leave.

After all the talk about being reason-neutral, it surprised me that they differentiate between paid parental leave and paid personal days. In doing so, the fairness point weakens. Parenthood as personal policy of its own still sends the message that it holds greater and more special value than other aspects of employees’ personal lives.

To make policy truly fair, it needs to incorporate parental leave as just one way to take advantage of a paid personal days policy. Time needed for activities related to the personal choice of parenthood should not be set apart from other reasons employees choose to take personal time off.

 

 

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