A Perfect Policy ... When There Is None
“We each picked up a request and came up with innovative solutions.”
Irecently had lunch with three beloved colleagues from my days as a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch. All four of us had children during our careers, so we had some colorful stories about our maternity-leave experiences and, more important, our transitions back to work. I had an additional experience of transitioning back to work after my stem-cell transplant for Hodgkin lymphoma. We’ve witnessed the changing landscape of companies supporting their mom employees, and, more recently, their dad employees, as they return from parenting and caregiving.
Before there were well-thought-out policies, you relied on the fairness, wisdom and thoughtfulness of individual managers. It was a toss of a coin whether you lucked out with a good one or got stuck with a crappy one. Even after the government and HR and legal divisions began dictating leave policies, phaseback details were often left to the departments and their heads. As a leader, I’ve had staff take leave for childbirth, adoption, parenting and caregiving. Others took time off for health issues. I like to think I’m one of the good ones, having supported these reports through their nuanced phase-backs.
For instance, my assistant returned from her maternity leave only to realize that without family support or backup childcare, every time her child was ill, she needed to take time off. I knew it was only a matter of time before she would look at the financial, physical and emotional toll of calling out so much, and decide to drop out of the workforce for a few years and try to re-enter again later.
Among our team of 10, including this assistant and one other, we decided that we would organize collaboratively and collectively to accommodate our various needs. Each put forth their request:
Some of us needed support for health-related issues—doctors and tests; others wanted to work out during lunch, which often took more than an hour; others were religiously observant and could use extra time off for that; others had elderly parents or children who required unexpected care.
We put our need for non-formally recognized time off on the table for consideration. We then each picked up someone else’s request and came up with innovative accommodations. Amazingly, within an hour, we had solutions for each. The millennial with a passion for rock-climbing during lunch, our devout Catholic who went to church every day, that mom without care for her sick child, and the cancer survivor who needed tests that weren’t available on weekends or weekday evenings were presented with workable options. Between cellphones and laptops for all (remember, this was in the early 2000s), learning to measure work output instead of hours in the office, and adding a healthy dose of generosity of spirit and compassion, we became the team that everyone wanted to join. We were productive, cohesive and happy.
It’s only in the past couple of years that companies have woken up to the fact that leave alone will not stem the attrition of women that occurs post-baby. Progressive companies that introduced phase-backs have started to reap the rewards of increased productivity and greater loyalty. I was proud to be known as a leader who is willing to find fixes using the broad framework my company had set and customizing it to the needs of the moment.
When a colleague has a terminally sick parent, the kind of flexibility they need is not permanent, but the goodwill that giving them time off engenders is. As long as a manager can be reasonable and focus on what the worker has to deliver, the employee can be creative about how and when they accomplish tasks. Ultimately, it’s the willingness of a manager to be open-minded and the desire of the employee to find a fair solution that results in success—policies and programs notwithstanding.
Sick babies call for parents with understanding managers.