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What Is Really Bugging Employers about Work and the Rest of Life?

Contributor: Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, Associate Professor of Management

Director of the Research Center ‘Contemporary P@thways of Career, Life and Learning’ at Rouen Business School, France

In the midst of heated debates around a number of prominent employers’ decisions to cancel telework arrangements (e.g. Yahoo) and pioneering initiatives such as Results Only Work Environments (e.g. Best Buy), and of the vivid discussions on Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, I’d like to go back to the classics.

One of the most eye-opening books I have ever read is Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s Work and Family in the United States. I read the first chapter and suddenly there was light. There was light and I was able to make sense of my observations regarding work and life during ten years of business consulting.

In this book 35 years ago, Kanter drew on a well-documented historical analysis to explain why employers were having such a hard time with their employees wishing and needing to balance their work commitments with other life commitments. It’s all about loyalty: employers want to secure employee’s total commitment and are reluctant to endure competing loyalties such as the ones represented by families.

Work and family, in the eyes of employers at least, have been competing since the beginnings of the second industrial revolution. Employers have first used families to discipline and socialize newcomers, and then have either tried to swallow it up in paternalistic programs or to ignore it – the famous myth of the separation between the work and family spheres that leads employers to pretend people can leave their personal life and identity at the door and behave in a strictly professional way.

It seems that we haven’t done much progress since then. And that makes sense given the increasing loyalty demands of workplaces that need employees to be available and reactive around the clock in a globalized and competitive world.

What most employers seem to not be getting, however, is that work and life don’t have to be competing. Yes, daily schedules are often in conflict, and yes families and communities provide alternative places to the workplace that people can belong to. But work and family also enrich each other, as Nancy Rothbard has demonstrated in her research, and as Stew Friedman has shown in Total Leadership. Work and family nurture each other on a daily basis and on a life-time horizon. Win-wins are possible, when employers trust employees.

Why does this matter? It matters, obviously, for those employees who will or will not be given the gift of autonomy over the time and place that they work. This is well known and I want to highlight instead the invisible and un-discussed side of work-life balance. In that same seminal book, Kanter brought forward the invisible stakeholders of the work and family debate. She argued that employers’ demands on employees, and the supports they provide, impact not only employees’ health and well-being, but also employees’ families and communities.

An employer may have 100 persons on their payroll, and see only these 100 persons. Yet the scope of their influence expands to the children, partners and elderly parents of those 100 persons. It expands to the communities of those 100 persons. Whether or not employers and managers enable their employees to craft the combinations of work and life that will meet business demands and work for them impacts whether those 100 people will be able to spend time to invest in their children’s future, to care for their partner and loved ones, and to contribute to their communities. Kanter concluded that employers should include a “Family responsibility report” when they prepare their work-life balance and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reports.

So Kanter had a vision. One that broadens otherwise narrow individualistic discussions of work-life integration, one that contextualizes work-life integration and carries hope for invisible stakeholders who are rarely centerpiece (for notable exceptions, see Ellen Galinsky’s Ask the Children and Friedman and Greenhaus on “children as the unseen stakeholders at work” in Work and Family — Allies or Enemies?).

Is this vision out of reach for us? I’d like to point to recent discussions I have had with PhD candidates who examine a new breed of organizations that make social responsibility the heart and core of their business strategy, instead of doing what they usually do and having on-the-side CSR initiatives. I would hope that these organizations would understand the scope of their responsibility in a broad way.

I’d also like to point to a paper that as a special issue editor I have just accepted for publication in the European Management Journal (see reference below): this paper by Sharon Lobel discusses poverty alleviation efforts of private sector companies in Brazil. She argues that some companies hold an “in-group CSR” view in which they develop poverty alleviation programs targeted to their employees and immediate stakeholders (e.g. suppliers), whereas other companies embrace a “universalist CSR” view in which they extend their programs to the local communities and beyond. This in my view truly reflects the spirit of Kanter’s vision and leaves me hopeful for the future.

As individuals and as managers, how you view work-life integration, how you view employee loyalty, has the power to change your life – and the life of many visible and invisible stakeholders.


Lobel, S. Forthcoming. Predicting organizational responsiveness to poverty: Exploratory models and application to comparison of Brazil and the United States. European Management Journal, Special Issue National Context in Work-Life Research edited by A. Ollier-Malaterre, M. Valcour, L. den Dulk and E. Kossek.

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