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EMPLOYEE BENEFITS

Working Fathers

A reprint from a current book called Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family.
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Thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation, in 1990 I began to explore what life was like for men as they tried to balance their commitments to work and family.* Much had been written, of course, about working mothers. What about working fathers?

I wasn't sure I would actually get any companies to enroll in our study, but when the senior management at Apple Computer quickly agreed to participate, it was a good sign. Still, as I strode into Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters in October 1990, I was nervous. Would anyone actually show up for the focus groups I was supposed to lead?

During what turned into a two-and-a-half-day stay, the men did indeed come, usually in groups of about 10, and many didn't want to leave. This wasn't some men's movement retreat, a sweat lodge in the middle of the woods where New Age men bared their souls about unfinished business with their fathers. This was the heart of Silicon Valley, as competitive as it gets, with men from all ranks opening up about the tension between the two most important dimensions of their lives: being there for their families and succeeding at work.

For me, listening to these men was an "Aha!" experience. Here were dads talking about picking kids up at child care, about overnight travel assignments, about supervisors who needed to "get a life." In interviews at other companies, big and small, I began to hear the same stories.

Meanwhile, data from the Families and Work Institute's nationally representative survey of more than 3,000 members of the U.S. labor force confirmed what I was hearing from individuals and small groups. More men were feeling more conflict between work and family life than anybody had thought, but they were reluctant to talk about it. I decided to turn my research into a seminar called DaddyStress: How Fathers and Managers Can Deal Effectively with Work-Family Conflict.

By the mid-1990s companies like Merrill Lynch, American Express, IBM, and Time Warner--companies that a decade earlier would have given no thought to the working fathers in their ranks--were asking for that seminar presentation. The same demographic data that I had seen were inevitably pushing these companies to realize that working parents come in two flavors--mothers and fathers--and that for the sake of their businesses, they needed to start paying attention to both.

Implicitly if not explicitly, most of the research in the work-family field has been concerned with working mothers. But when companies do study both male and female employees, they find almost inevitably that responding to the family needs of working mothers and working fathers contributes to the bottom line.

Fel-Pro, for example, a company based in Skokie, Ill., that designs and manufactures gaskets and chemical sealants, reported that the more employees used family-supportive benefits, "the more they exhibited initiative, teamwork, flexibility, and openness to total quality efforts," and the more likely they were to suggest product or process improvements. At NationsBank, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., the turnover rate is 50% less among employees who have taken advantage of programs designed to help balance work and family life. First Tennessee National Corp., based in Memphis, started treating family issues as part of its business strategy and reported that "supervisors rated by their subordinates as supportive of work-family balance retained employees twice as long as the bank average and kept 7% more retail customers...[contributing] to a 55% profit gain over two years, to $106 million."

One of the reasons men's work-family conflict remains an "invisible dilemma" is that men are reluctant to talk about it. The perception is that real men avoid admitting--much less talking about--any problems. And since work-family issues have tended to be defined as women's issues, men often fear being penalized should they broach them. A vicious cycle sets in: men don't make their needs apparent, and employers continue to define work-family issues as women's issues, which reinforces men's reluctance to express their needs. When employers invite men to discuss their work-family needs, make clear that it is "safe" to talk, and then listen to what they hear, they break the cycle.

A flexible schedule is the benefit fathers are most likely to use, because it does not compromise family income. Flexible scheduling does not mean asking employees to work less; it means giving them more control over when and where they get their jobs done.

Of course, not all jobs are amenable to flexible scheduling, and flexibility needs to be implemented for business reasons, not as an accommodation to working fathers. But when the flexibility of workers' time is understood as a strategic business issue, it becomes a way to enhance competitive advantage and to reduce the work-family conflict experienced by fathers and mothers. For managers interested in encouraging flexible working arrangements for men (and women), here are some strategies:

Focus on the business issue. By not fixating on the reason for a flexibility request, you will avoid having to determine whether one father's baby is more important than a mother's elderly in-laws. Focus on whether the work can get done and whether the employee can pull his or her own weight.

Experiment. When NationsBank first offered the opportunity for flextime, "there was a lot of hesitation from managers who wondered how we were ever going to get all the work done," according to the company's vice-president of personnel. Now almost all employees can take advantage of flexible schedules. LinguiSystems, a small publisher of educational materials in East Moline, Ill., had to experiment to figure out how to extend flexibility to all workers while conforming with the Department of Labor requirement that hourly employees keep track of their time and get paid overtime beyond 40 hours a week. It succeeded.

Make the program visible. Unless word gets around that fathers want and are using flexible schedules, the myth will be perpetuated that the program is only for mothers.

Help men believe it's OK to take advantage of flexibility. To do that, it helps to have the active and aggressive support of the chief executive.

Develop--but don't choke on--guidelines. Written guidelines are important to keep the rules of the game clear and consistent for everyone involved. But don't overdo it. At Tom's of Maine, in Kennebunk, Maine, the motto is "Let's not kill our employees with the bullets in memos. Let's just do it."

Measure output, not input. Everybody says that, but it is much harder to do than anybody says. It causes anxiety for both the employer and the employee. Yet appraising employees on the basis of what they get done, rather than on how many face-time hours they put in at the office, is a key element in creating the father-friendly workplace.

Focusing on fathers is a short-term tactic to achieve a long-term goal: support for all working parents, regardless of gender. More-flexible schedules will not cut down on the number of fathers working 70-hour weeks. But having control over which 70 hours they work, and where, will give more fathers the opportunity to connect with their children in ways that are meaningful to them both. More-flexible schedules at a few companies will not transform the workplace overnight. But in the long view, establishing such schedules is one of the small steps that will make it possible for our sons and daughters to enter a dramatically different workplace 20 years from now.

From the book Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family. Copyright © 1997 by James A. Levine and Todd L. Pittinsky. Reprinted with permission of Addison Wesley Longman. All rights reserved. Levine (levineja@aol.com) is the director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute, in New York City. Pittinsky (tpittinsky@hbs.edu) is completing the doctoral program in organizational behavior at Harvard.

*The "I" in this excerpt is James A. Levine


Resources

Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family is available in bookstores. To order directly from the publisher, call (800) 822-6339 in the U.S. and (617) 944-3700 x2405 outside the U.S. (Please reference ISBN# 0-201-14938-9)

To find out more about Daddy Stress/Daddy Success seminars, contact James A. Levine at the Fatherhood Project, Families and Work Institute, 330 Seventh Ave., 14th Floor, New York, NY 10001; 212-465-2044, ext. 203; fax 212-465-8637; levineja@aol.com; or visit the project's Web site ( www.fatherhoodproject.org).

For information about developing a corporatewide initiative on fatherhood, get in touch with Robert Lurie, chairman of Corporate Family Solutions, 1 Cattano Ave., Morristown, NJ 07960; 201-267-9100.

The Families and Work Institute is also a good place to turn for research and publications on the family-friendly workplace. The institute has a Web site ( www.familiesandworkinst.org) you can visit. To order publications from the institute or from the Fatherhood Project, call 212-465-8637.

Last updated: Jul 1, 1997




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