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COMMENTARY: 'FAMILY' DOESN'T ALWAYS MEAN CHILDREN

As I stared at BUSINESS WEEK's work-family survey a while back, something felt wrong. ''Can you vary your work hours or schedule to respond to family matters?'' ''Can you have a good family life and still get ahead in your company?'' It all suggested that only people with dependents have problems balancing their work and private lives. Twiddling my No.2 pencil, I wondered where were the questions dealing with other clashes that disrupt lives: the trauma of living with a partner with AIDS, for instance, or the juggling act of a single person trying to have a social life, run a household, and work.

As a married woman without kids, I'm not arguing against the rights of parents to watch soccer games or attend PTA meetings. Rather, we all should have the opportunity to find equilibrium in our lives. The perception is that too often, ''work-family'' policies ignore the millions of workers who don't have children. Enlightened businesses have changed the lingo to ''work-life,'' but the damaging impression still sticks.

No surprise, then, that the excluded feel rankled. Employers, wrote one survey respondent, are ''understanding to those who have to leave for family, but expect the single people to pick up the slack--almost as if, because we are single, we can work any hours expected.'' Childless employees also resent the money devoted to work-family programs. Wrote a worker at Sequent Computer Systems Inc.: ''The emphasis on 'family values' amounts to a subsidy for kids.''

All workers want flexibility to gain control over their lives, says Mary Young, a researcher at Boston University's Human Resources Policy Institute. The catch, she says, is that ''organizations function as if flexibility were a scarce resource, so employees have to compete with each other to get it.'' When the perceived criterion for winning flexibility is your family situation, Young says, companies ''set up a kind of divisiveness.''

VALUES. BUSINESS WEEK tries to support all its workers. I have been allowed to put my job on hold for two months and pursue my dream of writing fiction. Predominantly, though, it is parents with small children who are granted part-time schedules, who telecommute, or who leave the office early (though many check E-mail from home). During lunch, childless workers sometimes gripe about the scheduling perks--real or not--given workers with dependents.

Everyone has a life outside the office. It demands time and effort, whether to raise kids, care for a parent, or wait for the plumber. Recognizing those needs pays off in commitment and productivity. What's sad is that, in the rush to embrace ''family values,'' corporations seem to imply that some families are more valuable than others.

By Kathleen Madigan


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Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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