Should Working Parents Get Special Treatment?

Last week a column in this space on the delicate dynamic between working parents and their childless colleagues resonated with men and women throughout the country. I received hundreds of e-mails from people who shared their anecdotes and opinions on this topic.

We heard from women who believe it's the employer's obligation to extend flexible hours to enable them to meet their parental responsibilities. Many women said they believe employers should be required to offer accommodations to all working parents.

Other people -- those with kids and without -- disagreed, saying none of us is entitled to accommodations, and that if someone can't handle their responsibilities at work, they should change jobs.

Men and women without children expressed resentment for being expected to pick up the slack when a parent comes in late or leaves early to tend to their families. They said they believe it shows a lack of respect for their personal time. They're tired of the assumption that no kids means no life outside of work.

Some people went so far as to say that working is a choice for parents, and if they can't handle their jobs, they should stay home. (In fairness to parents, most people work out of necessity. They don't have the financial luxury to abandon their jobs.)

We live in a country that believes strongly in working hard and playing hard. It'd be difficult to find an employer or manager who doesn't agree that everyone deserves to have some balance in their lives.

Yet the reality of many positions prevents unilateral accommodations from being made. While it'd be nice for all of us to spend a lot less time in the office and a lot more time pursuing our personal interests and family obligations, it's not usually practical.

No matter where your opinions fall on this issue, there are some universal suggestions and solutions to keep in mind:

Be accountable for your own productivity. If you can't do your job without asking someone else to pick up the slack, then you should rethink your position. If leaving to be with your children requires you to hand off your work to other people on more than isolated occasions, it might not be the right job or the right company for you.

Offer to reciprocate. If your work isn't done and you really want to come in late because of your son's dentist appointment or you're eager to dash out early to watch your daughter's ballet practice, politely ask a colleague for backup assistance and offer to reciprocate. "I'm hoping that you might be willing to stay an extra hour to handle my tasks on this project, and of course, I want you to know that I'm happy to pitch in for you whenever you need my assistance. I'm very appreciative, so please don't hesitate to ask because I expect to reciprocate."

Have candid conversations. If you need an accommodation, approach your boss with the general details of your situation. Be prepared to explain how you'll handle your workload if this request is granted.

For example, if you're a receptionist who works 9 to 5 but need to leave for an hour in the middle of the day for a parent-teacher conference, explain that you'll be asking one of your colleagues to cover the phones for you if the boss approves the time off. Keep personal information private. For example, there's no need to trot out that you're a single mom with no other support system or that your child is failing several classes.

On the flip side, if you don't have kids and you feel as if your colleagues with children are always dumping their work on your desk, ask to have a calm, candid conversation. You can say, "You've expected me to handle your work on several occasions. While I respect that you have family obligations, I want you to know that I, too, have needs and interests outside of the office. I don't mind pitching in for you every now and then, but I can't do your work on a regular basis."

If you don't speak up, you're giving the other person permission to continue taking advantage of you. Similarly, you're allowing your anger and frustration to fester, which will only create tension in the office.

Focus on compromise. It's unrealistic to assume that the company should always bend to your personal needs. Often, we have to make choices, some of which may have to favor work over home.

As the mother of 8-year-old twins, I am often faced with this dilemma: How do I meet my professional obligations and also stay true to my parenting joys and responsibilities? Compromise is the best -- and only -- solution.

When it's just not possible to attend a school function, I try other backup options to avoid missing my kids in action, but I'm a firm believer that no play or performance is worth risking your job over, nor would I presume to repeatedly ask people in my office to cover for me.

One time when my daughter had a special play that conflicted with a long-standing work commitment, I asked her teacher to allow me to watch a dress rehearsal. I was the only mom who wasn't at the real thing, and I was also the only mom at the rehearsal. My daughter felt like a million bucks, and I got the best of both worlds: I saw her perform, and I honored my professional commitment.

At the end of the day, everyone's time is valuable -- regardless of marital or parenting status. Results and productivity are the drivers. If you're a solid performer, there's a better chance of your employer approving your request for accommodations. Don't ask people to carry your load and don't allow resentment to build if you're doing more than your fair share.

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