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March 10, 2008

Family-Friendly Work Places: Making Work, Work

The United States leads the world in many business practices. However, it lags far behind all industrialized countries when it comes to providing family-friendly work environments for employees, according to Kristina Bourne, assistant professor of management.

While there isn’t one standard definition of family-friendly, the term has come to mean a wide range of company benefits that make a difference in the lives of working parents. One such benefit is maternity leave. Since 1993, US companies with 50 or more employees must comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires businesses to provide employees with at least 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave for birth, adoption, or personal or family illnesses.

How does this compare with the rest of the world?

The Project on Global Working Families at Harvard and McGill Universities studied 173 counties in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America to determine how governments meet the needs of working families. Researchers found that 98% of the countries in the study had some form of paid maternity leave, with 57% offering 14 or more weeks of paid leave. Only four countries -- Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States – had no paid leave at all.

While the US doesn’t guarantee paid leave for new mothers, some corporations like General Mills and IBM, and accounting firms Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers have implemented employment practices that go beyond what is required by law. These companies haven’t implemented “family-friendly” practices because they are altruistic. They did it because it makes good business sense; studies have found that employees at family-focused organizations are happier, more productive, and have greater commitment to the firm.

“A company saves time and money when it retains qualified employees,” said Bourne. “Every time an employee leaves, he or she takes with them experience and knowledge about the company,” she said.

Bourne cautions that although a company may tout that it is “family-friendly”, it is important to look at organizational culture.

“A company may have a set maternity leave,” she said, “But mothers who take leave may be looked down upon by their supervisors.”

Some companies have begun offering “family-friendly” benefits to all employees, not just those with children, because they understand their employees’ need for greater flexibility in their work lives. Work-life benefits typically include flexible scheduling options such as flextime arrangements, job-sharing, reduced hours, compressed work-week, and telecommuting. They may also include paid paternity leave, dependent care assistance for elderly relatives, and employee sabbaticals for education, travel or fulfillment of life ambitions.

“We all have lives outside of work,” said Bourne. “A company with family-friendly practices acknowledges that we have multiple roles and responsibilities.”