The “Family Friendly” Trap

In my opinion, one of the best arguments for single payer in health care is that innovation and new businesses and job creation are stifled when people feel tied to safe jobs in big organizations by their medical insurance (if by “best argument” you mean the one most likely to convince the person who disagrees).

Similarly, I’ve watched talented friends of both genders (but more often women) get stuck in their careers because a workplace is “family friendly.” The current organization offers good benefits or a flexible work schedule, so even though these association professionals need to move on in order to advance in their careers, they can’t manage to leave.

What if the new place won’t cover their kids’ health care? What if they lose the schedule flexibility that allows them to manage child care changes without huge hassles with management?

The fact that they’re stuck for years in jobs with no possibility of further advancement becomes the price of having a life that works. And that sucks.

It’s a form of mommy-tracking, but it’s even more subtle and hard to address than old skool “we don’t promote mothers or give them big responsibilities” because it’s, at least on the surface, a voluntary choice. Those handcuffs may be made of gold, but they’re still handcuffs.

The thing is, “family friendly” policies like flexible schedules and good health care and reasonable leave policies have been PROVEN to increase retention (and we all know how expensive and time-consuming staff turnover is), improve the ability to recruit the best candidates, increase productivity and decrease absenteeism. The #1 reason people leave jobs is bad management. Treating your staff as less than equally valuable to senior management is pretty much the definition of bad management.

So what’s holding us back?

6 thoughts on “The “Family Friendly” Trap”

  • Oh, girl. Don't get me started. Too late. What's holding us back?
    1) classism. This is a conversation we have almost exclusively about white-collar workers. Until and unless we broaden the conversation to talk about the woman who pumps my gas, and her family's needs and how she can balance them with her need to work, we will as a society continue to assume this is a problem only for women who make the “choice” to work and therefore Not My Problem To Fix. (e.g., if you don't want this problem, don't have kids, or don't choose a demanding career – but what if you absolutely must work? These women have always existed, but we only wring our hands about the educated ones. Which is terribly elitist, in my view).
    2) Persistent, residual sexism. Until it becomes normal to say to men with kids at professional functions “gee, I don't know how you do it all” because it has become normal for their professional lives to be as disrupted as women's when they have kids, it will be perceived by close to half the workforce a problem of women and therefore Not My Problem To Fix. (I seriously don't get why I still hear “gee, I don't know how you do it all…” What “all” I want to ask?)
    3) The nuclear family. Bear with me here. What boggles my mind is that though we've been reading about the looming troubles of the sandwich generation (aging parents, young kids) for years, people still have this conversation as though it's only KIDS that disrupt a worker's ability to be present 100% of the working day. In truth, ALL of us should care about this because most of us will have aging parents, a sick spouse or sibling, or kids at some point in our working lives (and if you don't have that, god love you, you lonely soul). My point: many of us (again, I'm being classist) have grown up in families where our parents/grandparents/extended families haven't functioned as a safety net. We don't expect that burden to come up for us. But I think many of those same folks are in for a rude awakening.

  • My career has definitely been affected by the fact that most workplaces still think that the only way to have productive employees is by having them be in the office between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm. I have chosen jobs for flexibility rather than the actual responsibilities of the job, and will continue to do it until my kids go to college. It's definitely frustrating, because I know I'm cutting myself off from a lot of great opportunities by imposing limitations on myself such as refusing to commute downtown (especially since this is DC and most associations are downtown). But I make sure to keep learning and growing professionally on my own, regardless of the job I'm in, and I've gotten good at finding places that do respect work/life balance and give employees the freedom to get their work done while also being able to live their lives the way they want to. They do exist, but it's definitely more the exception than the rule.

    Is it frustrating to be stuck in a job because of the golden handcuffs of lots of leave or flexibility? Absolutely. But I'd much prefer that frustration to the frustration of being stuck in a kick-ass job at a place that didn't allow me to live my life the way I want to live it.

  • I was scared to transition from my last job for these very reasons and took the leap because I knew there was no way to move up once everyone saw me as “a mother who had responsibilities at home.” I was hugely offended when people who had the ability to promote me would say, “well, we give you flexibility to work from home so you can have more time with your family” as an excuse to not raise my salary or title…especially when some childless women and men at the same organization telecommuted and still managed to get raises and promotions. Golden Handcuffs, indeed! This is a serious problem that I've seen for many, many people in the workplace. Awesome post, Elizabeth!

  • Great post! I've always been a CEO and I've always encouraged employees to take care of their personal needs, even during work hours (as I have done, too).

    Employees should feel free to attend to doctor appointments, school conferences, sick children – or even get their hair done – and not worry about being docked pay, losing sick days or vacation days, or being passed over for promotion.

    If the association takes good care of its employees, the employees will take good care of the association.

  • David – I love that final statement: “If the association takes good care of its employees, the employees will take good care of the association.” It's all about do we operate from a place of trust and assuming the best of people or from a place of suspicion and assuming the worst.

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