The recent State of the Union address marked a major shift in public dialogue on issues related to women, working parents, and the American workplace. President Obama argued for prioritizing paid family leave and sick days and making childcare more affordable. This may be the biggest opportunity for federal policy change on issues of work and life since the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993. But change is hard and good policies aren't enough in a culture that doesn't prioritize caregiving. For a glimpse into the challenges of creating a truly family-friendly culture we only need to look to America's largest employer -- the federal government.
As an advocate for working parents, I have sought out real stories of workplace challenges. Among hundreds of messages from professionals across many industries, I have been particularly struck by the many federal employees who have reached out to tell me how purportedly family-friendly policies were actually playing out in their agencies. It seems that organizational policies don't necessarily translate to the best working conditions, even when the company memos are signed by the Commander in Chief himself.
In 2010, Congress passed the Telework Enhancement Act to allow Federal employees increased workplace flexibility to telecommute. One former political appointee wrote to tell me how poorly those policies were managed. "Managers have not been given sufficient training on how to manage subordinates who are on telework," she wrote. "I can tell you that this policy is not well managed. It's a system a bit out of control." A 2013 report to the Office of Personnel Management on the status of the act reads: "As often happens during the implementation of innovative programs, agencies continue to report barriers to full implementation of telework. Management resistance continues to feature as one of the most frequently reported barriers."
Providing flexibility has been challenging too. In June, Obama's office issued a memo ensuring federal employees the right to request flexibility. If the responses I've gotten are any indication, this is open to interpretation.
When Beth, one high level government agency employee wrote me about her experiences, she was openly distraught. "If you look at a job posting for my agency they talk about all the work flexibility -- telework, part time schedules, flex schedules, four ten-hour, etc. I found out recently that the federal government is not as family friendly as they claim to be."
Beth has been in her position for many years. Before her first maternity leave she was managing projects with multi-billion dollar budgets. When she found out she was expecting her second child, she and her husband decided it would make the most financial sense for her to go part time. Childcare costs in her area are, in her words "outrageous." She also wanted to have more time with her children without losing her place in the workforce. Part time seemed to be the best solution. Beth went to her supervisor and told her of her plans. Initially, her superior said she would support the request and would work with her to come up with a workable schedule. Three weeks before Beth's due date, her supervisor said she no longer supported part time work. Panicked about the financial and logistical implications of this change, she tried to push back. The once supportive supervisor suggested she start looking for a new job. She was referred to three different human resource specialists serving Federal employees, each passed her on to the next. One gave good advice about flexible work, one hung up on her, and the last gave the final word: no. When she was initially hired, over a decade prior, it was for a full-time role, so part-time wouldn't be possible for her. She asked about the President's memo. The specialist's refusal was direct and revealing. "Honestly, we don't have to follow what Obama said."
Most American workplaces struggle to translate work-life rhetoric into practice and lose top talent as a result. It's clear that there is a huge opportunity for working families with Obama's newly outlined agenda and implementation will make all the difference. According to Dr. Amy Beacom of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership, "Policy change can only go so far. Without leadership and management level advocates driven to effect culture change -- driven by the clear business case and because it is the right thing to do - the goals of good parental leave policy are doomed. The companies we work with who embrace this dual thinking, are already far ahead of everyone else. If companies are just doing it to check a box or because policy says they have to, but there is no buy-in, it won't work."
The problem is, this kind of dual thinking is extremely rare. Too often senior leadership may want to attract new candidates with the promise of "work-life balance." They put some policies on the books, some trainings in place, and offer some creative benefit programs, but they are not very well tracked or managed, making it impossible to calculate return on investment.The policies are treated as a nice to have. Ultimately, companies see these transitional moments and the employee absence as a casualty rather than the opportunity it is.
To address this, Beacom's Center, where I serve as an advisor, has started a parental leave Research Roundtable, which in part includes shared data from member companies about their employees who have gone on parental leave. It is the first international database to focus exclusively on parental leave data.
In my experience, most companies don't keep accurate or accessible data and have inconsistent policies around leave. It's easier to pay lip service, to make public statements, than to take these benefits seriously as an opportunity for growth. If companies are serious about harnessing this opportunity and, if America wants to catch up with the rest of the developed world, the time for change is now.