Avoiding A 'Parental Divide'

Jeff Zbar

Several years ago, human resources executives at Baptist Health South Florida in Miami decided to launch a telework program. But among their concerns was how childless employees would perceive the company’s reception of work-at-home parents.

Would benefits like flextime, compressed work weeks and telework appear to benefit employees with kids more than childless workers? Would dissention, resentment and claims of favoritism emerge?

Sensing this issue possibly arising, executives paired single, childless and parent employees on a task force to write the program’s guidelines, says Anne Streeter, assistant vice president for work-life programs.

The resulting guidelines – as agreed by the task force – helped forge a policy that met the needs of the entire group, and avoid any complaints about a program that favored parents or care-givers, she says.

“We define family much wider than just family, not just those who have kids,” she says. “We try to be pretty sensitive to that. You have to address people’s personal lives, not just whether they have kids or family.”

Proponents of equal pay for equal work complain of inequality in corporate “family friendly” policies – including those that allow compressed work weeks, leaves of absence, telework and flextime to working parents. Most of today’s workforce has no young children, and “family friendly” policies, including flexible work arrangements, are seen by some as favoring those with kids.

What’s more, teleworking parents spend less time in the office, and force their in-office peers to carry the load. But is this all just a misperception on the part of those who don’t telework? While remote workers might work in the office less, they’re often toiling outside traditional office hours as well. Evenings and weekends often are on-the-clock time for teleworkers.

The best way to avoid claims of favor is to select teleworkers based on performance criteria, their ability to work from home, and whether their tasks can be performed outside the home office, says Jane Anderson, director with non-profit telework consultancy Midwest Institute for Telecommuting Education (www.mite.org) in Minneapolis.

Managers cannot ask whether the worker has at home children who could be distracting, according to Equal Employment Opportunity law. Instead, Anderson recommends managers pose the question, “Is there anything in your home office environment that could distract you from performing your job?”

After all, single or childless workers often have pressing responsibilities outside work that could require greater flexibility in their schedules.

“You have to realize that single people have other distractions. It’s really a matter of what are the distractions,” Anderson says. “You have to do damage control before people go off site. The preventative effort is to train people to know what’s appropriate and objective. Managers should never be put on the spot of who has the better reason to telework. That’s where control is lost and the objectivity is gone. It should be performance based.”

In 10 years of managing work-at-home medical transcriptionists, Barbara Lietz has tried to quell any claims of family favoritism by childless in-office staff.

Almost half of her 90 staffers are remote workers. Many of them have children or elder parents at home, but that’s not why they work from home. They want to find balance and productivity, while eliminating the daily commute to Allina Metro Transcription Services, part of the Allina Hospitals and Clinic in Minneapolis, Minn. Those who work from the corporate office seem comfortable that their colleagues work from home, and few suspect any favoritism landed their peers in telework arrangements, she says.

Why? Because Lietz, the facility’s operations manager, wrote her company’s policies and procedures manual outlining that telework was open to anyone who wanted to work from home – and whose performance record proved they were worthy, Lietz says. Though many people seek to telework as a way to find greater balance between their personal and professional lives, parenting responsibilities have no place in the selection criteria. Anything else could hint of discrimination against single workers.

“Family at home has never entered into the selection of someone working from home. It’s just whether they can perform the job from home,” she says. “That’s helped us avoid any backlash from on-site employees."

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