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Corporate culture dictates work-family balance

November 14, 1997|By Jo Ellen Barnhart

Since the birth of my first son seven years ago, I hit the difficult intersection of job and personal life. It's no exaggeration to say this is a collision of atomic bomb proportions. These roles do not stay on parallel planes.

To be viewed as a solid company employee, I learned, "You do not broadcast your desire or need to put your family first." To be accepted as a competent mother, I learned, "You do not broadcast your desire or need to be successful in the workplace."

Conversations with others involved in this work and family collision, generally, are not pretty. Hundreds of people I've talked with over the years, caught between the intensity of demanding employers and the pressure of financially frail, sandwich families, feel angry and abused.

Many people see corporate "family-friendly" efforts as either empty nods to political correctness or just shrewd public relations.

One of my former colleagues once said: "What a joke!"

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"There was a meeting scheduled during Mother's Day," a local store manager once told me. When her complaint was voiced, her boss replied, "If you have a problem with that, we'll find someone who doesn't."

A stay-at-home mom, who once worked as a high ranking executive once told me, "Anyone who thinks you can have it all - power, money, career and fulfilling family - is either naive, dumb or crazy."

According to a recent survey on work and family strategies conducted by Business Week magazine, the mood beyond the top tier of management is dark. The essence of Business Week's second survey of 12,000 employees at 55 companies reports that only 49 percent of employees said they could have a decent family life and still get ahead at work.

And the discontented were not just working mothers. Among the dissatisfied were childless couples and single people. Men expressed a greater frustration than women in handling the work-family balance. But employees faced with the responsibilities for elder care were the unhappiest of all.

Slow track or career death?

Check your workplace for an undertow that spells career death if you hold the conviction of putting family first. Fear of this type of career derailment is grounded in my own first-hand experience.

The birth of my third exceptional (I like the term "exceptional" over "disabled") child launched my husband and me into a new realm of child-care worries and expenses.

For my employer (at that time), the search for a solution led to some innovative human resource programming involving job sharing.

But the effort was viewed as a bureaucratic add-on targeted at women with kids. Such an inaccurate perception can create division and rivalries within and across departments, creating a negative backlash.

Several years ago my friend Tammy enjoyed a compressed work week after the birth of her first child. Both Tammy and her boss were pleased with the results. But both agreed, however, that as long as she kept the "special" schedule, her career could stall a bit.

It's not that she was perceived as uncommitted. But she was hard-pressed to take on the extra work it took to make her shine.

Tammy admits, "I wanted to believe it didn't matter, but really, I know it did."

Today, she is a committed, well-adjusted, full-time mother.

It's clear. More than any other element, corporate culture dictates work-family balance.

Treating employees with respect goes further than giving them day care or breast-feeding rooms. Work-life consultant Marci Koblenz claims the most effective policy for handling the work-family intersection is treating employees as adults, paying them decent wages and allowing them some control over decisions.

Jo Ellen Barnhart is the working mother of three boys. She is a freelance writer and owner of a home-based marketing and public relations business.

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