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Corporate Flexibility: Myth vs. Reality

by Kelly Watson  |  7012 views  |  4 comments  |        Rate this now! 

Corporate advertising of work-life balance benefits is becoming more prevalent. However, I can’t help wonder what is behind some of the great “work flexibility” programs companies offer. It seems like the working mothers I know are largely unsatisfied by their companies’ attempts at flexibility. I have heard that “Half day Fridays” means “Ten-hour Thursdays” and “You can work part-time” really means “You can work forty hours per week for 50% of your former salary.” Further, and I know from personal experience, using some of these programs is fine if you are an administrator, but career suicide if you are considered “high potential”.

Work-life balance is such a hot topic these days. With the growing labor shortage, and with the emergence of a younger, less work-oriented generation “Y”, more and more companies are advertising new, innovative work flexibility benefits to lure employees. However, it seems some companies get kudos for programs that may not be all they are advertised to be, while other companies deliver work-life balance without the recognition. Here are some real life examples from my small corner of the universe:

My husband has been working for Disney for 5 years. Our daughter was born the same month he started, so he put us on the waiting list for the on-site corporate daycare at that time. We were informed last month that our spot is now available. Too bad she starts kindergarten this fall and won’t really be needing daycare anymore. On Disney’s website they advertise “Childcare centers in Burbank and Orlando” as one of their “Life at Disney Perks”. I am not sure they should get credit for offering a work-life benefit that, in reality, very few people can use.

A friend of mine worked full-time for a similar company. She was good at her job and recently beat out a male peer for a promotion to management. When she returned from maternity leave she asked to step back her hours and travel temporarily. The request was granted, but in return she was demoted and her male colleague promoted to her job. Needless to say, she soon left the company. The company is quick to tout their flexible hours and part-time work programs, but strangely, no career track professionals are using them.

On the other hand, my friend Marty owns a wholesale wellness company in Los Angeles called “Herbs of Mexico”. One of his managers recently had to leave her home overnight with her child to avoid a nasty domestic situation. Not only was she given unlimited time to take care of her personal situation, but also Marty personally helped her move, solicited donations of furnishings from friends, and installed a security protocol to protect her. While his company may never make a “Best Places to Work” list, his management team is surely dedicated to their employer in a way most companies would envy.

About the Author

I am a former marketing executive, consultant, and MBA. I recently founded Career Partners, a niche executive recruiting company focused on supporting

Read more by Kelly Watson

4 comments so far...

  • Hi Kelly
    Loved your piece. I keep wanting to write my own article titled "How far have we really come" or "Flexibility is a Four Letter Word". I've been a sales executive for over 13 years spending the last four in management positions. I'm in the advertising/media/publishing business and have recently conducted my first ever job search. It was with complete shock and horror that so many companies in my field would not support any kind of flexibility. In fact, I felt that once it was brought up it was the "kiss of death". I have a great resume, amazing relationships, strong skills and yet magazines that have the tagline "where families come first" would not allow for flexibility. Ironic, huh?

    I'm going to have to go "off the beaten track" to find a family friendly company who needs my skill set. The big players are afraid of opening pandora's box.

    I'm confident I'll find what I need and land a good job but I'm very saddened and disappointed by the response I received when I tried to negotiate for flexibility. I'm not willing to give up on the time with my 3 children so I'm hanging tight to my convictions.

    Please let me know how we can fight smarter to support working mothers - I'll contribute what I can. Action speaks louder than words. Let's figure something out.

    Keep up the great writing.


    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Megan on 22nd September 2007

  • My company has won "family friendly" awards here in our state several times. The main reason is that they offer fully paid health and dental insurance for employees and their immediate families, which really is a great benefit. However, my former boss here expected me to work right up until I went into labor even though I was having physical problems, and actually went to HR to find out if she could force me to do so. (They told her no. I took off and went into labor two days later.)
    My current boss was irate when I had to take an extra day after a scheduled surgery to rule out ovarian cancer. (I scheduled three days and took four at the advice of my doctor because I had post-op bronchitis). I have sick and vacation time out the wazoo but was turned down for my last vacation request (I requested two days) and am constantly worrying about losing my job because my daughter gets sick a lot, and day care will not take her if she is sick. My sister has kept her several times, but she is about to go back to work, and I don't know what I'll do then. I would give anything to be able to work at home, but am scared I would not be able to make a living.
    The company is getting less family-friendly all the time, and I have heard several others saying the same thing. A single mom with three children turned in her 30-day notice in keeping with company policy for her position, and they told her to leave. She was not able to start her new job for six weeks, and it was a hardship. She did not receive severance pay because she "quit."
    If I hear the words "family-friendly" one more time, I'm going to throw up. It's like the term "empowered employees" -- if they are bragging about it, it probably isn't true.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by jps on 15th June 2007

  • I used to work for a large corporation. They also touted great benefits, but when it came down to it, the benefits really weren't that great. My friend who worked with me, left for maternity leave, had delivery complications but was still borderline harassed to come back to work sooner than she was really physically capable of doing. When I got pregnant with my second child, I didn't want to play that game and left the company to do freelance work.

    Now here's the flip side: I now work part time for a new company - doing freelance work. My hours are flexible, but I'm very reliable and get my projects done on time. Even on days I'm not really working, I'm still in touch for questions people might have, etc. either via email or cell phone. I'm very good at communicating with them where I am with my projects, when they'll be done, etc. However, to really get ANYTHING done, I had to do *some* day care for my son. Which is fine. It's still not every day like it was before, and I have WAY more flexibility than before. And a few days a week is fun for him - to get to do something different, play with other kids. It works out.

    With this great of a situation, I thought I would help out some other moms I know to get them in on this great deal of a job. However, my friend didn't want to do any day care - she just wanted to work here and there with her son at home. Unfortunately, if you're trying to get projects done, you also need to be able to be in touch when people need you. Sometimes I'd send her an email but wouldn't get a response back until the next day - when I really needed a better response time. In the end, this arrangement is not working out because there's not enough communication, and she's not putting in the amount of time needed to get the job done. I don't blame her one bit - without the little day care I do, I'd get nothing done - but that's the trade-off.

    My point is that flexibility is great... if the position can support it, and the employee can support it. You can't expect "flexibility" in a job that needs someone available everyday. As well, for "flexible" positions, you also need the employee to be even that much more in contact so that others can get their job done. It also takes extra work in planning for that same reason. If someone is waiting on my work to do theirs, things need to be planned out so that no one is sitting, waiting to do their part. So in my case, even on the days I'm not "sitting in front of the computer working away" my bosses still know where I am with my projects and when it will get done - and if they have a burning question, they can still reach me.

    So in a sense it takes "two" to dance the flexibility tango... everyone has to do a little extra work to make it work. (I apologize for the length of this comment - guess I'm in a chatty mood) :)

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Jennifer on 5th May 2007

  • Kelly, thank you for this great article. I think it is really important to get the real story out there about companies doing - and not doing - their part to help employees with work-life balance. I can share a bit of my own experience. I was working for a large consulting company when my manager on the project had a baby. The official maternity leave was 12 weeks, but she was back at work after 6 because, as she said to me, she knew that taking the full leave was frowned upon. She was promoted a few months later and there was a comment made in her review that she showed great dedication by coming back from maternity leave so quickly. This to me is almost scary - the culture that this company promoted - but on the surface, I guess you'd say they are friendly to women.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Nataly on 3rd May 2007