5 Questions for Susan DePhillips

By Staff Report

Aug. 29, 2005

Susan DePhillips
Author of Corporate Confidential: What It Really Takes to Get to the Top

The former vice president for human resources at Ross Stores interviewed more than 50 senior executives for her book. Her research challenges the notion that it is possible to take advantage of employee-friendly programs such as flex hours and telecommuting to raise a family and still get to the top rung of corporate management. DePhillips, now working as a consultant, talked to Workforce Management staff writer Douglas P. Shuit.

Workforce Management: Why do think work/life balance programs should come with warnings for ambitious executives?

Susan DePhillips: Telecommuting and compressed workweeks for younger professionals send a subliminal message that it’s possible to take advantage of these programs and still get to the top. While there are exceptions, the top executives I interviewed say you can’t have it all. There are in fact trade-offs to be made between careers and family life. There is something to be said about being in the office day in, day out.

WM: Are stay-at-home husbands or full-time nannies the only solution for executive women who want to reach senior management?

DePhillips: I don’t know how women can do it all without some sort of support mechanism. It’s not a coincidence that the successful women I interviewed tend not to have children or married later in life. For many it was a conscious choice.

WM: Do you think that might change?

DePhillips: I am starting to see change. That’s because female executives have had such a hard row to hoe to get where they are. So they bring a special sensitivity to this issue and are paying attention to the plight of women in their organizations. But there are also women executives who had to pay their dues and expect others to do the same. That view is shared by both men and women executives. I wouldn’t bet on seeing a complete reversal.

WM: How did you see this issue when you were a human resources executive?

DePhillips: I probably fall into the group of those executives who think that, first, the work has to get done. There has to be a recognition that the work has to get done. What was most surprising to me in talking to the senior executives is the way they sort of lived and breathed their jobs. The executives I interviewed consistently said that their primary focus was on their job, rather than any personal agenda that they had.

WM: What role should workforce managers play in communicating the possible risks of taking advantage of benefits like telecommuting?

DePhillips: The problem is that if you are a younger professional and you don’t know any better, you might feel you can still take advantage of flex hours and telecommuting and still have a fast-track career path to the top. The HR profession should be telling employees the truth. They should be taking a harder look at every program or employee perk and really think through the message it sends about what the corporation really values and rewards. These are great perks, but they are not designed for the people who want to shoot for the top. These programs are really designed for the B and C players in an organization.

Workforce Management, September 2005Subscribe Now!

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with