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Judge: “The law does not mandate work-life balance”

Categories: Career, The Juggle, Uncategorized


Last month, Manhattan district court judge Loretta Preska threw out a class-action lawsuit by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Bloomberg L.P., the financial and media services company founded by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The defendants insisted that the company ,had routinely discriminated against pregnant women and employees who were returning from maternity leave by reducing their pay and their work responsibilities. But the judge disagreed.

Though there was proof of “several isolated instances of individual discrimination,” she noted, there wasn’t enough evidence to show that the discrimination was “Bloomberg’s standard operating procedure.”

“The law does not mandate ‘work-life balance’,” she wrote. “In a company like Bloomberg, which explicitly makes all-out dedication its expectation, making a decision that preferences family over work comes with consequences.”

I want to say she’s wrong, but she’s absolutely right. The law does not mandate work-life balance, and employers are well within their rights to demand what they want from their employees.

It’s not a legal issue. But, work-life balance absolutely is a best-practices issue. As plenty of studies show, a happy employee is a more productive one.

In 2008, Kansas State University researcher Thomas Wright found that “Simply put, psychologically well employees are better performers. Since higher employee performance is inextricably tied to an organization’s bottom line, employee well-being can play a key role in establishing a competitive advantage.” Some (increasingly rare) companies make take happiness and work-life balance to the extreme—Google, which was voted the best company to work for in 2007, used to offer massages and reimburse expectant parents $500 for take-out food—but other companies may be willing to let an employee have a flexible schedule or telecommute, if that’s what it takes to keep him or her happy. Sometimes, it’s worth tweaking company policy in order to keep your best people on board.

Ironically, what the female employees involved in the class-action suit are actually upset about may be that they’ve been treated a little too equally. According to Preska, the evidence showed that all Bloomberg employees who took long leaves of absence for any reason, not just maternity leave, ended up with lower pay and reduced responsibilities. “Bloomberg’s standard operating procedure was to treat pregnant employees who took leave similarly to any employee who took significant time away from work for whatever reason,” she wrote. “The law does not create liability for making that business decision.”

A company isn’t legally obligated to change its expectations about work just because an employee has changed his or hers. But then again, an employee isn’t legally obligated to keep working there, either.

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2 comments so far...

  • It reminds me of my mom’s story about going back to work after having a second child. When she tried to modify her travel schedule to better meet child care needs, or have meetings at 4pm rather than 5pm she was told “if [we] wished you to have children we would have issued them.”
    Many employers still feel the same way. And they’ll get away with it as long as the economy remains this way. But as soon as it begins to improve they’ll start losing the best of their parents and that might make them reconsider the policy.

    Mich  |  September 22nd, 2011 at 3:19 pm

  • I agree with you. In private industry, companies have a right to negotiate for what it wants from employees, and vice versa. Having worked in that kind of environment, I have to say that the pay reflects the expectation of a high level of sacrifice - a level which is not, and should not be, acceptable to every working mom. (Some, yes, depending on individual circumstances.) There are other jobs which are better suited to people who want to work 8 hours per day, have weekends off, travel rarely, etc. They pay less, but oh well.

    While I was working on my girls’ adoption, I was traveling about 50% and generally at work until 2am. Obviously not sustainable with babies (especially as a single mom). The company offered me a deal for cutting back my hours and pay after my adoption leave. The deal was not workable, and I was not in the least surprised, so I gave my notice. The company does not want to hire people with my experience in part-time positions, and why should they have to? As a business owner myself, I want nobody telling me whom I should hire and under what contract terms.

    So I joined an all-woman firm which allows me to work mostly at home, travel little, adjust my hours for family needs, and still do important, interesting work. I also have a much better childcare deal. Is it my previous company’s loss? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s my gain, so who cares?

    SKL  |  September 22nd, 2011 at 6:27 pm