What Is 'Family-Friendly,' Anyway?

October is National Work and Family Month, and I've been thinking: What does it mean for a workplace to be “family- friendly”? Actually, since one of my regular gigs as an “employer-of-choice” writer and consultant is helping companies with their applications for “best workplace” lists, this question arises a lot. I find it fascinating how differently it can be interpreted across organizations.

I’ve written before about how vastly different company cultures and practices can be from one another—and how few employees within these companies seem to be aware of that fact. (This is one reason my clients seek my help on these applications: to provide some much-needed perspective on what makes them great—or not.) Often, I find myself working with two companies that are both equally, and justly, proud of their family-friendly culture, yet their policies and practices have almost nothing in common.

In fact, I’ve noticed that although the components of family-friendliness can fall anywhere across a great spectrum, they generally fall towards one end, or another, landing in one of these two buckets:

  • Bucket One: Companies that welcome and involve employees’ families in the life of the organization (with “families” defined more or less expansively, depending on the culture). They may do this by providing frequent on-site opportunities for interaction, or by including families in off-site events and activities (summer picnics, holiday parties, volunteer events, etc), or both. These sorts of companies tend to include employees’ personal lives in the life of the organization in other ways, as well. They are places where you’d feel comfortable keeping not just a family portrait at your desk but pictures of your kids, and pictures by your kids, all over your workspace. Places where it’s fine to make that 3:00 call to check in after school, or to admit that the reason you’re leaving early is because the sitter can’t pick up the kids today. They are places where the in-house newsletter or intranet home page or even in-house video monitors include announcements of weddings and pictures of new babies, and maybe even feature articles about a family member’s accomplishments.
  • Bucket two: Companies that provide employees with strong programs and policies to support their lives outside of work. These sorts of companies may have organized, well thought-out flexible work policies; solid paid leave programs; back-up dependent care along with other informational resources around parenting, education, elder care, etc; reimbursement for adoption expenses; and any of a myriad other policies and programs to support working caregivers. But they don’t necessarily welcome families to be part of the culture. In theory, you could work for one of these organizations, taking advantage of all these services, and your co-workers might never even know you were a parent.

Of course, there’s a lot of overlap between these models; it is, as I said, a spectrum. But it’s amazing how many organizations I run into that seem to lean heavily in one direction or the other. And though, yes, I think employers are right to be proud of the best aspects of both of these models, my question is, is either one truly family-friendly?

If, for example, you have a paid paternity leave policy, but you also have a culture in which one doesn’t speak about one’s parenting responsibilities, are dads going to feel comfortable taking leave? Or, when something goes wrong in their kid’s day, are they going to feel comfortable taking that call? (“Comfortable” may be too weak a word here. We talk about employees feeling comfortable using policies, but if they have very real reasons to believe that taking advantage of certain policies could affect their job or their advancement, then more than comfort is at stake.)

On the other end of the spectrum, if you have a company that strives to include employees’ whole families in every event, and cheerfully announces personal milestones, or sends gifts for new babies, but provides little or no paid leave or other tangible support for families—how family-friendly are they, really?

The solution, of course, is that to be really, truly family-friendly a company ought to have both: strong family-oriented culture, strong policies and programs. Yet in my experience, such a company is a rare bird, indeed. I have some theories about why this is, based on little more than personal observation, which I may explore in a future post. In the meantime, I'm curious if others have noticed (or experienced) this phenomenon, and have any theories of your own?

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible “great place to work” competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at www.robinhardman.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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