Contributor: Liz Stiverson
Work and Life is a two-hour radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday from 7 to 9 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit).
On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Scott Behson, author of the blog, Fathers, Work, and Family and Professor of Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he researches work-family balance and high-involvement work practices. They discussed unique challenges fathers face in the workplace and steps working dads can take to increase their autonomy and freedom, for the benefit of both their jobs and families.
The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Stew Friedman: What do you make of the recently-reported findings that fathers especially benefit when employees are given more autonomy over their time at work?
Scott Behson: It’s not surprising to me. I find that there are two stigmas fathers face in trying to accommodate their work to their family lives. The first cuts both ways, for men and women – that if you accommodate your work to your family life, you’re seen in the workplace as less committed and not all-in. The second stigma which keeps men from using flexibility as much as they would like, or hiding it when they do, is that they’ll be seen as violating a gender norm by being less manly than society expects.
SF: The Journal of Social Issues Special Issue of Flexibility Stigma (edited by Joan Williams, a former guest on the show) was all about the flexibility stigma with a number of pieces on how it plays out with men. So, how do you counsel individuals and organizations to overcome these stigmas and experience greater autonomy and freedom?
SB: To some degree, you have to live in the world as it is, and also try to create change when you can. My first piece of advice to fathers is to really understand what you’re up against. What are the attitudes of your supervisors and coworkers? What is your company culture like? What are your hang-ups about it? I find that a lot of men put this on themselves – even when supervisors might be more supportive than feared, people are afraid to ask for help. In reality, most managers are trying to be good people. They might not fully understand how to get there, but they want what’s best for their employees; if we don’t give them the opportunity to respond, we’re only hurting ourselves. Secondly, I think it’s important that individuals understand what their priorities are. If that means going for the brass ring – the C-suite job or the partnership – that’s great, but you should understand what tradeoffs that will mean in the rest of your life. Conversely, if your highest priority is to be a very involved dad and to be there for much of your children’s childhoods, that’s another set of tradeoffs. However, I would counsel someone struggling with even an unsupportive supervisor or culture to look for smaller, hidden, less formal ways to build in more flexibility.
SF: This is exactly what we’ve been doing here at Wharton and elsewhere with Total Leadership. First, diagnose what’s important to you, next dialogue with others, and then discover new ways of integrating work and life by doing small experiments. Can you give some examples from your work?
SB: Even in a company where everyone tends to come in at 8:00 or 8:30 in the morning, colleagues probably wouldn’t look too askance at it if you came in at 8:45 or 9:00, if that means you get to be part of the morning routine with your kids. You could run errands during lunch, or slink out of the office when you can and bring some work home at night. A lot of employees do those invisible things; hopefully, however, we don’t need to keep them in the closet all the time. If you build up a reputation as a good employee, now may be the time to start spending some of that earned cash, saying to a supervisor, “My last three reviews have been great, and I will continue to be great, but let me go home at 3:00 on Thursdays.” A good friend of mine is a top executive at a large accounting and financial firm, and negotiated Daddy Wednesdays for himself much earlier in his career, about 10 years ago. He arranged that he didn’t have to come in until 12:30 or 1:00 on Wednesdays. He kept up every other aspect of his job, but he got to spend the whole morning with his preschool-aged kids on Wednesdays. His corporate culture wouldn’t have liked it, but it wasn’t widely known – he worked it out with a great supervisor.
SF: What I’ve found is that central to this is creating small experiments in ways that are geared toward making other people successful – particularly your manager, who has control over your time and money. The solution has to work for others not just for you. Have you found this to be the case?
SB: Absolutely. It really jumped out at me in the study you mentioned at the top of the hour on autonomy that the work week got a little shorter and autonomy increased, but productivity was the same. Being able to assure your supervisor of that is really important. You could even do this through a semi-formal contract which says, “Let’s try this out for a month; I’ll give you progress reports of what I’m doing every week, and if you’re not happy with how things are working out after a month, we’ll revisit it.” Normally things work out well after a month – in most white-collar, professional jobs, one third to one half of the work can be done in places other than the office and times other than normal work days and hours. You just have to prove that supervisors’ fears about performance are baseless.
I don’t mean to sound pessimistic – I see a lot of dads prioritizing family without paying too much of a price for it, or regretting the tradeoffs. I’m convinced that the more we talk about work-family issues for fathers, the more evident their importance becomes. I would encourage dads who have job security, or a spouse with a stable source of second income, to be brave – be the first person to take paternity leave in your company, or the first person to ask your boss about part-time telecommuting. Maybe they’ll say yes, and maybe someone will see you ask, and decide to ask, too. And it’s important to have social support – I like taking my son to the school bus stop in the morning because I get to chat with other dads in the neighborhood. If you have friends or neighbors, get together with them; inevitably, you’ll talk about work and your families, and realize you’re not alone.
Join Work and Life next Tuesday, July at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Michael Rashid and Sarah Kagan. Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.
About the Author
Liz Stiverson received her MBA from The Wharton School in 2014.