Companies need to become more 'family friendly'


BOWLING GREEN, O.—Career patterns are changing. In case you haven’t noticed, many talented employees are opting out of corporate jobs to gain greater fulfillment and balance in their lives. With the federal government projecting a U.S. labor shortage by 2012, Dr. Sherry Sullivan, an associate professor of management at Bowling Green State University, believes companies have reason to worry.

Sullivan is the co-author, with Dr. Lisa A. Mainiero, of “The Opt-Out Revolt: Why People Are Leaving Companies to Create Kaleidoscope Careers” (September 2006, Davies-Black Publishing). For the book, she and Mainiero examined the careers of some 3,000 professionals, conducting three major surveys as well as a focus group and in-depth interviews to learn what’s behind the life and career decisions they make.

What they found is that many of today’s jobs are not offering employees enough. “People are looking for positions that make them feel authentic, that enable them to balance their work and life, and that offer them stimulating challenges,” the BGSU professor said.

It’s a feeling of being “out of balance” that leads these professionals to look for alternatives. Some leave high-powered managerial jobs for less demanding positions while rearing children; some leave to pursue personal passions or charity work; some, to care for children or aging parents, and others, to start their own businesses. Those who don’t leave may become disengaged and less productive, or their frustration may lead to destructive acts that “get back” at their employers.

“We call what these people are looking for ‘kaleidoscope careers’ because, like the three mirrors that change the design when a kaleidoscope is rotated, these people want positions that change with their changing needs,” Sullivan said.

Younger workers, particularly, are seeking balance to their lives, she noted. “The GenXers and the Millennials have seen the baby boomers go through downsizing. They figure: Why work 50 or 60 hours a week just to get downsized?”

Perhaps most strikingly, Sullivan said, many companies believe they are “family friendly,” but in reality, they aren’t.

“It’s something unique to the United States. We say family values are important, but we don’t stand behind it,” she said.

For example, some companies offer family medical leave, but it’s unpaid, so not everyone can afford to take off. If child-care centers are available, they don’t take into account that the parents’ workday is longer than operating hours for the centers. Other family issues, such as elder-care services and sabbaticals to reduce job burnout, aren’t addressed.

Sullivan noted that fewer than half of the managers have flexible schedules. Long hours, which many women can’t work because of family demands, continue to be the status quo, and many companies believe they offer the same benefits as other companies so they don’t have to do more.

“Smart companies are doing things now to keep talented people, and it’s having a positive effect on the bottom line, but some companies just don’t seem to get it. They’re fooling themselves. People have choices,” Sullivan said.

One of the “smart companies,” Sullivan says, is Motek, a California software company that has an employee-focused culture.

The book recommends that companies make changes to retain and advance talented employees, who will be increasingly in short supply over the next decade. Among the suggested changes:

— Redesign work so it can be made flexible.

— Embrace “kaleidoscope” thinking and alternative career paths, building “on ramps” as well as “off ramps” so workers of all types can take career interruptions and return later.

— Make top-level management accountable for turnover and advancement rates of women.

— Create reward systems based on actual performance and outcomes, not face time.

— Foster an organizational culture that encourages and rewards the use of family-friendly programs, expanding beyond children to provide programs that support care giving.

— Make sabbaticals available for long-term employees to encourage fresh thinking.

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(Posted October 11, 2006 )