If people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their boss. How do you become a boss that workers refuse to leave?
The answer looks obvious from recent online discussion: Refrain from judging employees with an outside life.
In an apology letter to working mothers that set off a firestorm of online buzz, the president of an Internet startup gave a harsh account of how workers with family responsibilities are unfairly judged by their bosses.
As a manager at The Huffington Post and then The Washington Post in her mid-20s, Katharine Zaleski admits that she judged other mothers or said nothing while she saw others do the same.
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“I secretly rolled my eyes at a mother who couldn’t make it to last-minute drinks with me and my team,” she wrote in a letter that appeared in Fortune. “I questioned her ‘commitment’ even though she arrived two hours earlier to work than me and my hungover colleagues the next day. I didn’t disagree when another female editor said we should hurry up and fire another woman before she ‘got pregnant.’
“I sat in a job interview where a male boss grilled a mother of three and asked her, ‘How in the world are you going to be able to commit to this job and all your kids at the same time?’ I didn’t give her any visual encouragement when the mother — who was a top cable news producer at the time — looked at him and said, ‘Believe it or not, I like being away from my kids during the workday … just like you.’”
In a move that goes on in many workplaces, Zaleski said she scheduled last-minute meetings at 4:30 p.m. all of the time. “It didn’t dawn on me that parents might need to pick up their kids at daycare,” she said. “I was obsessed with the idea of showing my commitment to the job by staying in the office ‘late’ even though I wouldn’t start working until 10:30 a.m. while parents would come in at 8:30 a.m.”
Zaleski says she didn’t realize how horrible she had been until she gave birth to her own daughter. She now runs PowerToFly, a company that matches women who want to work from home with jobs in the tech field.
As soon as Zaleski’s letter appeared and went viral, other managers came forward to admit being judgmental, too. One commenter on Fortune’s website wrote: “When I was 28, I managed a group of 25 people and one’s 50-year-old husband was dying of cancer and one’s mother was dying of something else. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t meet their deadlines and get their work done. I have felt guilty for all these years about how I mistreated them.”
It can be easy to dismiss a working parent as uncommitted, a worker with elder care responsibilities as distracted, or a younger employee who wants to train for a marathon as lacking work ethic. It can be easy to call super early morning or schedule evening dinners with clients that can happen during the regular workday.
But human resources experts say you don’t need to be in a person’s shoes to be a boss who creates a workplace where employees thrive. A good boss thinks about the bigger picture and realizes people have lives outside of work, HR consultant Carly Guthrie recently told Quartz (qz.com), a global business website. “That’s the No. 1 way to prevent people from feeling like they might want to be somewhere else.”
I find myself offering encouragement almost weekly to a working mother or father who feels judged by a boss for asking for flex time or wanting to leave by 5 to make it to their son’s soccer game. Their most common complaint: my boss will penalize me.
A report from Bright Horizons Family Solutions, an employer benefit child-care and early education company, reveals many employees feel they can’t be open with their boss about family obligations. The report in June 2014 titled “The Modern Family Index” found 48 percent of working parents feared family commitments and issues could mean they lose their job, while 39 percent said it may cost them a raise. Others (26 percent) worried their home life could lead to a demotion, and 19 percent said it could leave them excluded from meetings or key projects.
As more fathers want to be equal partners in parenting, they still feel they can’t express that to their boss, especially non-parents. Bright Horizons found about a third of working dads have faked sick to be more involved with their family, and one in four have lied to meet a family obligation, according to the report.
Addressing the report when it was released, Bright Horizons CEO Dave Lissy said in a statement that despite company culture or workplace policies, “A lot of this depends on the relationship a person has with a supervisor or manager. If a company doesn’t have great functions in place, and family obligations pop up and you can’t have that discussion with a supervisor, it all breaks down.”
One South Florida boss explained his challenge is how to empathize with an employee who wants to leave at 6 p.m. when he puts in long days and nights. “Someone should get rewarded for giving 110 percent to their job,” he said. “Of course the millennials are changing that way of thinking because they feel they are entitled to an outside life.”
As millennials become managers, many do think differently about work/life needs. As long as the work gets done, millennials are less concerned about the when and where. Patricia Pineda, group vice president of Hispanic business strategy for Toyota Motor North America, sees changes ahead, particularly with young male managers. “The younger men want to be more engaged fathers. They are less reluctant about taking time to go to their son or daughter’s event. I think that’s helpful because they are more sensitive to others with demands at home.”
In most workplaces, managers of all generations tend to be less judgmental with those who prove themselves productive. Pineda, who started in the legal department and held various positions, demonstrated her commitment to her work at Toyota for a decade before having children. The earned respect helped her avoid judgment while juggling work and three children, she says. Now, she often counsels other working mothers to communicate with their boss rather than quit. “Most of them thank me for encouraging them to hang in there. In the end, it works out.”
Business journalist/columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman writes regularly on workplace and work life issues. Connect with her at BalanceGal@gmail.com or visit www.worklifebalancingact.com.