Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The myth of family-friendly workplaces

While I was on my blog hiatus, I gave a lot of thought to what I would do with it. I considered - briefly - stopping altogether, but realise I enjoy being a part of the blogging community too much. Still, I knew I wanted to shake things up a bit, so I've decided I will wander off topic of spades and spoons if I feel moved to, to write about stuff that is on my mind. Today..the myth that is the family friendly workplace.

Action Man works in Corporate Australia. You know, the type of company in the Top 10 market capitalisation in the ASX200. The type of company whose main ethos is "make a lot of money, and then some". The type of company that likes to position itself about how cutting edge it is when it comes to dealing with its employees (because they are so valuable). The type of company that introduces "family friendly workplace" policies to this end and trumpets them in annual reports.

Action Man's company has a policy in place where you can apply for 8 weeks' leave a year, 4 unpaid. Sounds great, doesn't it? If you can manage on 4 weeks' less pay a year, but get extra time with the kids, the aged parents etc, who wouldn't go for it? What they neglect to say, though, is that this policy is window dressing only. It is merely there to give the illusion that they care about their employees, their families and their communities. Because if you have the temerity to actually apply for such, be prepared for disappointment.

This is what Action Man found when he mentioned to his boss that he planned to apply for the "8 weeks' leave a year" under the scheme. The reply? Don't even bother, you won't get it. Further, the mere fact of applying would count as a "black mark" in the inevitable yearly performance reckoning.

Meanwhile AM's colleague works full-time and is the mother of a chronically sick child who is on a constant schedule of medical appointments. The scheme sounds perfect for her, right? A no-brainer, surely, on compassionate grounds if nothing else. Wrong. She was accepted into the scheme, but only after fierce lobbying on her part, the sort of lobbying that doesn't win you friends and allies.

If someone like her has to fight so hard to take advantage of a scheme that is ostensibly available to anyone for the asking, and if someone is advised not to apply for the scheme if they don't want their performance rating to be negatively affected, who the heck is it for?

The promise of family friendly workplaces has been around for yonks - since the early 1990s at least in the days when I worked in Personnel. And yet, while major companies seem to have made leaps in writing policies that gain them kudos from the Office for the Status of Women and others, family friendly workplaces seem to remain straw men, especially in the biggest companies.

The attitude of those who run these companies seems to be that employees are there to work all the hours that are available - there's always another billion to be made after all. As for all that touchy-feely family stuff, that's only so they can run smiley pictures of employees in the annual report with a straight face. (As for their own families, well, I guess they make enough to palm everything onto the nanny).

I'd like to be wrong on this. Am I too cynical? I'd like to find out that AM finds himself in a dimly lit corner of corporate world, and that in fact family friendly workplaces exist.

Anyone out there know of a company that is truly family friendly? That has policies and has been known to have employees take advantage of them without having to go to war for the right? I'd love to hear from you!


Sonia said...

Sorry, you've found another cynic. My husband and I both worked (note past tense) in that very ugly corporate world. What you describe is exactly our experience. That family friendly stuff is nothing but window dressing. I've even seen glimpses of it in the education industry (granted i've only experienced high profile private schools).
I can absolutely agree that it is a black mark against your name for even asking. Pro-family, pro-women, pro-whatever are simply gimmicks. I still can't believe how few companies don't have child care facilities.

Paola said...

*Sigh*, Sonia. Can't say I'm surprised.

Tracy said...

I'm sure there are some workplaces out there that offer a true family-friendly environment but they would be few and far between. My husband worked for a small business 17 years ago and wanted to have a day off to bring me home from hospital after having our son. He was told that it wasn't possible and that if he did, he needn't come back. Thankfully I gave birth on a Sunday or he may have missed that too. I guess we were young and naive at the time to investigate our rights.
Happily he now works in the public sector and has access to paid leave for family purposes even if it is limited. I know I didn't juggle work and family well and made the choice to give up my career. I'm not sorry that I did.

I don't think you're a cynic, just reporting what you see first hand.

Cabbage Tree Farm said...

Corporations are only interested in making profit. Sadly everything else is just talk to sound good.
And I don't think it's being cynical, just realistic!

Paola said...

Tracy, I'm considering giving up work at the moment, just to keep everyone's sanity. I don't do the work/family juggle all that well either - the end of last year is evidence. Good to hear you haven't regretted.

Bridget - yep, companies love profits, everything else....forget it.

emilysincerely said...

Wow. It amazes me, but yet it doesn't. You are not being cynical, just telling it like it has happened to you and your family. The sad part of all this is that the big companies get away with it. It just raises my blood pressure!