It’s not always fair, but it’s right (Editorial)

By John Hobel
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/29/2003

I

t takes a village to raise a child. Modern families rarely have that support. For many parents, a family-friendly workplace is the closest they’ll come to societal support. Canadian firms are slowly waking up to this, offering flex work schedules to accommodate family needs and tailoring benefits to personal circumstances.

But for some staff without children or elder-care commitments, co-workers with kids are getting special treatment that results in workplace inequity. Not only does the organization spend more on benefits for staff with families, these people are getting to come in late or leave early to meet family needs. Childless workers are the ones who end up staying late to make sure schedules are met. It’s not fair.

What’s a company to do to even the balance sheet? One way HR departments have reacted to this perceived unfairness is to offer flexible benefits, where employees can choose benefit offerings from a variety of options. Young childless people can opt for more vacation instead of the deluxe family dental plan. This helps, but what about all those times Bill in accounting left early to coach his daughter’s soccer team or take his son for a doctor’s appointment? It’s special treatment at the expense of childless workers who have to pick up the slack. How should a proactive family-friendly employer respond these sentiments?

This is probably the point where I should mention my potential bias — I have children.

While workplace inequities of any sort can cause morale issues, appreciating that families have needs should not fall into the same category as “Who has a bigger office” or “Who deserves a company car.” Just how selfish has society become when a childless co-worker’s complaint that he couldn’t make a squash date stacks up against rushing to an emergency department because your child broke a leg.

The same argument would never be taken seriously if it were applied to disability management. Where are the complaints that Bill gets a special (and expensive) workstation when he returned to work after breaking numerous bones and partially losing his vision? Whining about family-friendly workplaces needs to be met with the same derision.

The argument could be made that a young childless person will one day be a parent who will benefit from family-friendly policies. But this won’t be the case for everyone, so the inequity will still exist for many. In any case, this misses the point. Workplaces are part of society, not separate from it. Do we really want a nation where working is incompatible with family structures?

A family-friendly workplace is a step toward a better society. It’s not something employers should apologize for. Remind complaining co-workers that while they’re relaxing from a hard day’s work, Bill in accounting is staying up late to finish reports he would have done at work if his son wasn’t hospitalized that day.

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