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Boss’s Tip of the Week #31: Employees without Children: How to Reap Rewards by Respecting Personal Lives

The Boss's Survival GuideHere is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Max is Julie’s prize collie. She has raised him from the time he was a young puppy, investing thousands of hours in training and grooming. Outside work, she and Max are virtually inseparable. She belongs to a club of collie owners, and because she knows that not every dog is as fortunate as Max, she volunteers in a local animal shelter. So when Julie asks for a day off so that Max can participate in a high-profile dog show, would you let her take it?
 
Before you answer, consider some other situations. What if Max was her oldest friend, visiting from across the country and only in town for one day? What if Julie is a Meals on Wheels volunteer and Max is a housebound elderly man? Would you give Julie the time if Max was her five-year-old nephew? Her grandfather? Her hospitalized boyfriend? Her 10-year-old son?
 
These situations are at the center of workplace skirmishes that threaten to erupt into full-scale warfare because most employers will only give Julie the time if Max is her son, and employees without children resent that. “Our company says it wants to help balance the demands of work and personal life,” John says, “but they seem to think that personal life is the same as children. I’m tired of watching the parents walk out of here at five to pick up their kids while the rest of us stay here and work. It isn’t fair.”
 
This is a highly emotional issue. Parents argue that juggling work and family is tough. They face childcare crises, doctors’ appointments, and family situations that require them to take time off. They say that their co-workers don’t see the time they work at home after the kids are in bed. Besides, they argue, someone has to raise the next generation.
 
Fair enough, say those without children, but we’re tired of feeling that our personal lives don’t matter. “I get asked all the time to help out so someone can go to his kid’s soccer game, or whatever,” John says, “and I do it. But when I ask them to return the favor so I can do something that’s important to me, they’re always too busy.” John also complains that his manager never interferes when employees need to do something for their kids, but subjects everyone else to the third degree when they want to take time off or alter their schedule. He adds that parents are asked to travel less often, they are forgiven for missed deadlines, and they earn the same money for working fewer hours.
 
As with most divisive issues, there is truth on both sides, which is a manager’s nightmare. Ignoring the issue won’t make it go away. You can make the whole problem go away by putting the focus back on job performance.
 
Take Action
 
Flexibility is flexibility is flexibility. Let’s assume you’re managing exempt employees. If you’re a cool boss who lets people slip out early or come in late occasionally, give everyone the same flexibility. Resist the temptation to ask what they’ll be doing. If you give people time to deal with their personal lives, it doesn’t matter whether they spend that time taking their kids to a soccer game, volunteering in a homeless shelter, or going to an antique show; it’s their business, not yours. Measure whether work is completed on time and done well; don’t log every time Jane comes in late or leaves early.
Give people maneuvering room. Even if you are a cool boss, it’s tougher to give people in nonexempt jobs the flexibility to just cut out early. Often the work they do can only be performed on site (and not at home, for example), and you must also contend with overtime law. Still, we’re talking about a job, not a prison camp. If your company policies allow it, let people use vacation or personal leave time in small increments (such as a half-day at a time) provided they request the time in advance so you can plan. Track the hours used.
Accept that there will be emergencies. Crises happen in everyone’s life; treat them all equally. Don’t reassure parents that “everything will be fine here, just go” and then make it tough for others to get away.
Don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume that employees without children are more willing to travel, or that parents can’t stay late. Make decisions based on who is best suited to the job.
Monitor work hours. No one’s asking you to track every hour exempt employees are at work, but watch general trends. Employees might leave at different times for many reasons. But if those leaving on time or early are always the same people, it’s time to step in and coach them about sharing the burden.
Hold people equally accountable. Once deadlines are determined, decide the consequences for not meeting them and hold everyone to the same standard. Don’t cut parents extra slack.
 
Real Life Example
 
Cancer patients often have extended hospital stays, and during that time they get to know the nurses and other members of the staff. The team at one California hospital helped that process with a bulletin board on the oncology floor. Each employee was invited to post something about him- or herself, which patients and their families could then look at. Although some people chose to post pictures of their children, the board was not just an oversized “Hey, look at my kid display.” Some employees posted pictures of their spouse or significant other; others pinned up photos of themselves busy with their hobby or charity work. “I like the board because it shows we’re all real people with real lives,” one nurse said. “We’re not just nurses or just parents.”

Boss’s Tip of the Week #31: Employees without Children: How to Reap Rewards by Respecting Personal Lives
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