HR Administration

The Last Word: Fathers Figure

By Ronald Alsop

Jun. 3, 2011

With Father’s Day fast approaching, many men will soon be celebrating the joys of parenting. But just how joyful do they really feel about the amount of time they spend with their children?

Certainly, men have made great strides since the days of the demeaning “Mr. Mom” stereotype. The number of stay-at-home dads has mushroomed—154,000 last year, double the total in 1994, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s count. Some men also take short-term paternity leaves now, while others manage to do part of their work remotely to reduce hours spent in the office.

Yet despite such progress, many men still fear negative repercussions if they cut back on face time at work. In a new global study titled Men and Work-Life Integration, WorldatWork and WFD Consulting found that men feel more challenged than women in finding enough time for their families, even though they crave it just as much and often enjoy access to flexible workplace arrangements.

The study uncovered some troubling disconnects. More than 80 percent of the business leaders in the survey said they consider work-life programs important to talent recruitment and retention, as well as employee satisfaction and productivity. Even so, the majority also believe “the ideal employee is available to meet business needs regardless of business hours.”

Among all of the workers surveyed, there were conflicting results, too. More than 20 percent of the men and women in developed countries worried about being penalized if they used flexible work programs, but a smaller percentage said they actually experienced retaliation or other negative consequences. Employees in both developed and emerging countries rated their companies as fairly supportive of work-life integration, but at the same time, they felt they must be somewhat secretive when they adjust their work schedules for personal activities.

Although both men and women sometimes resort to such stealth behavior, Kathleen Lingle, the head of WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress, told me, “Men are more likely to go to their kids’ games and not say why they left the office early.”

I can understand the fears and secrecy. I was stationed in a corporate office in New York when my son was an infant and toddler, and I sensed hostility from some colleagues when I left in time to catch the 6:50 p.m. express train home and see him before bedtime. Part of the problem was that my supervisor and most others in my group didn’t have children. But there also seemed to be less tolerance in general for flexibility for fathers than for mothers.

Fortunately, I worked primarily from a home office as my son was growing up. I shared many extra hours with him, including attendance at nearly all of his baseball games, from third grade through most of high school. It was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But I’m the exception. Most men need greater support from their employers to feel comfortable about reshaping their work lives so they can enjoy fuller personal lives. A good first step: Provide a forum for more honest discussion. WorldatWork convened a group of men at a retreat in New Orleans this year, and some of the participants felt relieved to have a safe place to express concerns about work-life issues after keeping such thoughts bottled up at work.

To spur further conversation, WorldatWork and WFD Consulting are urging men to share their experiences in a men’s study dialogue on LinkedIn. The organizations also wish more corporate executives and human resources departments would encourage men to form their own employee resource groups where they could vent their feelings and trade information. Thus far, however, only a handful of companies, including Accenture and State Farm Insurance, have offered support groups specifically for men.

Corporate leaders also can affirm the importance of work-life balance through example. For instance, Cathy Benko, chief talent officer at Deloitte, tried to encourage the accounting firm’s executives to be more transparent by revealing her own little secret—the time she skipped a high-level meeting to shop at a big Nordstrom sale.

“We can send a huge signal,” she told me, “by our example, by not making excuses when we fit life into work.” Now let’s see some courageous male executives stand up and share their stories about ducking out early for a daughter’s dance recital or a round of golf. Greater candor just might go a long way toward giving men the confidence to take advantage of flexible workplace options.

Workforce Management, June 2011, p. 50Subscri be Now!

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