My Executive


    Oct 07, 2013

    Don't put family on back-burner at work

    The New York Times

    OF COURSE, people cover up aspects of themselves on the job. But when they cover up their families' needs, they're putting family responsibilities in the category of "things we don't talk about at work", and the repercussions are wide-reaching.

    Dr Kenji Yoshino, a professor at New York University's law school and author of the book, Covering, and Ms Christie Smith, a principal at Deloitte, recently looked at the question of who covers up family responsibilities at work, along with the reasons people feel a need to cover their sexual orientation, race and socio-economic background.

    They found that a wide range of people avoid talking about family at work, and that "covering" makes these people disinclined to stand up for others whose family needs come up at work. They are also less likely to vocally support family-friendly policies.

    People who "cover" don't actively hide their families' needs. Instead, they work to ensure that their families, and the time they take from work to spend with them, recede into the background in a work environment.

    When covering is the default, a manager could call an evening meeting for six parents of young children, and not one would feel that it is acceptable to speak up - even if it's a meeting that could be held another time.

    An employer could decide to move hourly shifts that once fit a school schedule to shifts that would require childcare, and, again, employees would stay silent.

    The "covering" research was done with the goal of helping firms build workplaces that are more inclusive of all the circumstances, traits and affiliations that people cover (thus retaining employees, among other things).

    The researchers came up with a variety of suggestions to help corporate clients both "talk the talk" and "walk the walk" of supporting a range of employees who no longer fit the outdated image of a suit-and-tie company man.

    A firm can create a handbook, website and endless other materials talking the talk, but only individual employees can really walk the walk.

    In the interest of uncovering family, that means putting up photos and not hiding that 4pm early departure from work - for a big soccer game or dress rehearsal - under the guise of a "meeting".

    For parents in less flexible workplaces, senior people need to declare, say, their children's chess tournaments as a reason for a shift change and, regularly, casually address the question of childcare when scheduling as if it's a given, not an inconvenience.

    That's not easy in a culture that may give family lip service but, in reality, places very little economic value on the work that goes into raising children.

    All employees are likely to have times when they need flexibility to raise a family, care for elderly parents or achieve personal goals, and every one of them should feel able to ask for that flexibility, whether it's ultimately achievable or not.

    Firms should do all they can to encourage an end to the cover-up, but it's the people in senior positions who are willing to speak openly about the ways they integrate family and career, who will make a bigger difference.

    "As work and personal lives become so enmeshed, the lines between work and home are blurring," said Ms Smith. "People are doing work everywhere. We need to create cultures of transparency so we can talk about it."

    The writer is editor of The Motherlode Blog at NYT.