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.