View items related to this story


Business Week's second survey finds juggling both is an endless struggle--and companies aren't helping much

The letters spilled into BUSINESS WEEK's offices all summer. ''There was a meeting scheduled for Father's Day,'' a TRW Inc. manager wrote. ''When a complaint was voiced, the project manager replied, 'You have a problem with that? If you do, we'll find someone who doesn't.''' An employee at KPMG Peat Marwick observed: ''My company has programs that should make balancing family life and work better. But the reality is, we are a service organization, and when a client says jump, our firm does not care about flexible schedules.''

''DuPont will take as much as you will give,'' complained a part-timer there. ''And it is always implied that if you want to get ahead, you will not broadcast your desire or need to put family before work.'' A supervisor at another company was more succinct: ''Anyone who thinks you can have it all, power career and fulfilling family life, is either naive, dumb, or crazy.''

Hundreds of them arrived--letters from across the nation reflecting on the difficult intersection of jobs and personal lives. As a rule, they weren't pretty. Many Americans, caught between the crush of demanding employers and the intensity of their dual-income, sandwich-generation families, feel abused and angry. They view corporate ''family-friendly'' efforts as either empty nods to political correctness or just shrewd public relations. Wrote one: ''What a joke!''

Such missives accompanied questionnaires from 12,000 employees at 55 companies, the fruit of BUSINESS WEEK's second survey of work and family strategies in Corporate America. On one level, the results were encouraging. At companies such as MBNA Corp. and First Tennessee Bank, which ranked highest overall, family-friendliness is ingrained in both culture and business strategy. There, and at Barnett Banks, Motorola, and Sequent Computer Systems, among others, workers testified to the success of strategies designed to ease work-family tensions.

Beyond the top tier, however, the mood darkened. Many employees said work had a negative impact on their home lives. A majority felt they were able to adjust job hours to meet family demands, but there was a high price: Only 49% said they could have a decent family life and still get ahead at work. Importantly, the discontented weren't just working mothers. Childless couples and single people were just as dissatisfied. Men expressed greater frustration than women with work-family balance. Unhappiest of all were employees responsible at home for elder care, a long-ignored group almost as numerous as women with kids.

KNEES JERK. So the truth emerges: ''Work and family'' strategies aren't working very well. Lacking true business grounding, applied spottily and halfheartedly, at odds with corporate culture, and perceived by managers and employees alike as just another flavor-of-the-month human resources add-on, these schemes have little impact on workers in most organizations. ''After the first round of knee-jerk reactions, companies have become more strategic,'' says Ellen Bankert, co-director of the Center for Work & Family at Boston College's Carroll School of Management. ''But on implementation, they haven't made a lot of progress.''

Work-family advocates view that critique with mixed feelings. Many point to the popularity of such benefits as subsidized child care and on-site shopping. Yet most acknowledge that while helping employees twist their lives to fit workplace demands, those programs do little to make work accommodate life. Instead, supervisors schedule meetings at odd hours that require last-minute day-care arrangements or ask for memos that force late nights at home. ''We have the breadth of programs to cover employees' key needs,'' says John A. Krol, CEO at eighth-ranked DuPont. ''Now, the challenge is making sure that they're made available and that our [managers] are creating the kind of work environment'' that supports work-life balance.

That's much easier said than done. To effect real change, ''you have to challenge underlying assumptions that govern the way people do their work now,'' says Lotte Bailyn, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who has researched work redesign and its effect on work-life balance. Companies, she says, must rethink reporting relationships, pay systems, and cultural norms. Doing so can lift profits even as it addresses employees' lives. ''But that's a complicated process, getting people to see it.''

The companies atop this year's survey, conducted in partnership with Boston College's Center for Work & Family, grasp the connection between culture, strategy, and work-family results. Credit-card issuer MBNA offers many flexible work arrangements, subsidized child-care, and on-site services. But more striking is the ubiquitous top-down culture that reinforces the notion of respect for employees at literally every turn. Execs and rank-and-file workers alike carry with them, and quote from, a laminated card printed with the company's core precepts. ''MBNA is a company of people who expect treated fairly,'' it reads, ''work with people who respect each other; have meaningful work to do.'' And employees appear to believe in them. ''The card dictates what we do at home and at work,'' says Debra Neel, a senior banking officer.

Hewlett-Packard Co., meanwhile, is experimenting with job and process redesign in several units; it has 16% of employees involved in telecommuting, part-time jobs, or compressed schedules, but wants to better integrate such options into the business to ease employees' fears of ''career death'' if they take part. First Chicago NBD Corp. now requires all managers to submit written plans for expanding job flexibility. First Tennessee Bank goes further, allowing teams of workers to decide how and when their jobs get done.

NOT JUST TALK. The survey rated such strategies in two ways. First, it scored participating companies on the breadth of dependent-care programs, flexible work arrangements, health and wellness facilities, and other benefits, as described by company officials. But 60% of companies' scores were determined by employees' assessments of how well such programs play out in practice. Fully 500 employees were randomly selected at each company; an average of 210 answered. Were they expected to work inordinate hours? Did work-family benefits fit the bill? Did supervisors support work-family arrangements?

That last question provided an unexpected window on the work-family dilemma. Most people consider their bosses allies in confronting time binds. Some 79%, in fact, said immediate supervisors were flexible regarding work-family demands. But a vociferous minority complained that their units strayed starkly from stated corporate policies. ''My company is relatively understanding (I think),'' wrote one professional. ''My department is actively hostile.''

CULTURE CLASH. What plays nicely at headquarters, in other words, often does not fly in decentralized divisions or autonomous work groups. In part, that's a matter of scale and resources: On-site day care may be justifiable at a location with 5,000 employees, but not likely at a sales office of just 30. More often, though, it's a function of culture. So-called corporate values aren't communicated or accepted across the organization.

ITT Hartford Group Inc., for example, which placed 11th on BUSINESS WEEK's list, offers most of its 18,000 U.S. workers all manner of flexible jobs, plus emergency child care and nursing-mother rooms. But until recently, 30 legal employees in New York City saw none of that. ''As far as I'm concerned, not only is this company not family-friendly, but it does everything possible do go against families,'' says Joanne Tresin, an attorney with two kids. ITT Hartford says that, following BUSINESS WEEK's inquiry, the unit's manager had agreed to consider flexible hours.

More often, the reverse phenomenon drives a schism between policy and practice. Flexibility and balance may be possible on paper but lack support from on high. While many respondents lauded supervisors, fewer employees believe their companies' top leaders back family-friendliness. ''Upper management doesn't want to hear that you can't get a sitter or that you have to be gone all afternoon to attend to a family crisis,'' writes one oil company clerical worker. ''They simply operate on a different level.''

Lacking visible support from the top, work-family efforts can quickly be crippled. Human resources executives with work-family responsibility become marginalized, their efforts viewed as annoying bureaucratic add-ons. More damaging, employees come to view the benefits as concessions targeted simply at women with kids--even though that group accounted for less than a quarter of survey respondents (page 104). That often inaccurate perception can create division and rivalries within departments. It also can underscore the conviction that putting family first spells career death.

SLOW TRACK? Fear of career derailment is grounded in experience. At 10th-ranked CIGNA Corp., pricing supervisor Kelly Sardo, 31, enjoys the four-day schedule she started after the birth of her son last year, cutting her workweek to 45 or 50 hours. Her boss, Jon Rubin, is pleased with the results, too. But both say that as long as she keeps to such hours, her fast-track career will stall a bit. ''It's not that she'll be perceived as uncommitted,'' Rubin says. But held to the same basic requirements as a full-timer, Sardo will be hard-pressed to take on the extra work that would make her shine. ''I'd like to think it won't matter, but really I know it will,'' Sardo says.

At MBNA, 78% of employees said they didn't have to sacrifice career progress. Why the difference? In part, perhaps, it's because they see the company's top officers confronting family issues of their own. Although far better paid, Vice-Chairman David W. Spartin sent his two children to the same on-site day-care center as other employees. And when Senior Vice-Chairman Lance Weaver found himself making trips to the tailor during work hours, he hired a tailor to come to headquarters for everyone's convenience. Executives and rank-and-file alike share the same fitness facilities.

Software maker Autodesk Inc. has relatively few formal programs, yet employees rated it, too, among the top family-friendly companies. The key is an informal, egalitarian environment. From the company's beginning 14 years ago, most employees have set their own schedules. Nearly half work at least one day a week from home. CEO Carol Bartz sets the standard, working at home for a week after most long trips so she can be with her 9-year-old daughter, Layne. And there's the distinctive pet policy: Dogs, cats, and iguanas are allowed in the office, subject to co-workers' approval.

The lesson: More than just about everything else, corporate culture dictates work-family balance. And treating employees with respect goes further than giving them day care or nursing rooms. That's what Alice Campbell, Baxter International Inc.'s work-life director, and consultant Marci Koblenz learned in an 18-month survey of Baxter employees. Programs that attempted to assuage work-life tensions, they argued, weren't all that relevant. Fewer than 15% of Baxter's employees, for example, said better dependent-care assistance would help them.

Rather, the most effective policy, the study found, was respect for employees--treating them as adults, paying them decent wages, allowing them some control over decisions. Indeed, says Koblenz, ''when employers address programs while employees are struggling with issues of respect, employees perceive the programs as lip service.'' It's a difficult message to absorb. Programs, though more expensive, are relatively easy to slap into place. Cultural change is far more compelling, but far tougher, too. The companies atop BUSINESS WEEK's survey have mostly figured that out. Most others have a lot to learn.

By Keith H. Hammonds in New York, with Roy Furchgott in Wilmington, Del., Steve Hamm in San Francisco, and Paul C. Judge in Boston


TABLE: The Top 30



Return to top of story


Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
Terms of Use