Employers Urged To Make Workplace More 'Father-Friendly'

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 1, 2007
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PHOENIX—Brent Bowditch, assistant director of human resource services at Purdue University, didn’t want to be the father in Harry Chapin’s haunting song “Cat’s in the Cradle”—the father who put work ahead of his children, only to hear the lament, “When you comin’ home, Dad?”

Bowditch was reminded of the song during “Work and Family Balance for Dads,” a presentation at the three-day Work-Life 2007 Conference here Feb. 22 sponsored by WorldatWork and Alliance for Work-Life Progress.

Twenty years ago, Bowditch changed jobs shortly after his supervisor chastised him for staying home from work one day to care for his sick sons so that his wife could make an important work presentation.

Men don’t stay home with the children, his boss told him; that’s what mothers do. It was an attitude worlds apart from his own. And today he works for an employer that allows employees to work from home, work later schedules and bring their children to the office.

That’s the kind of flexibility employers need to offer fathers as well as mothers, according to session presenter Christopher Brown of the National Fatherhood Initiative.

Design programs aimed at fathers

Most work/life programs were created with mothers in mind, Brown said. He pointed to surveys that have shown more mothers than fathers taking advantage of work/life balance programs and policies such as flexible work schedules, telecommuting, taking a leave or sabbatical, and changing work schedules informally.

Instead, employers should create strategies for assisting fathers in identifying the barriers in their lives that keep them from achieving a work/life balance, Brown said, because men are struggling with the old cultural model of what it means to be a working father.

Unlike the traditional model that emphasized the father’s role as financial provider and not much else, the model of today’s father is one that is more involved with his children and domestic chores in what is often a two-income family.

Because fathers parent differently from mothers, they need work/family balance programs and policies designed specifically for them, according to Brown. Some steps he suggested that employers can take to create a father-friendly workplace include:

  • Having supportive leadership and business philosophy
  • Training managers to be sensitive to fathers’ needs
  • Developing HR programs and policies that address work/family balance issues for fathers
  • Developing a positive image in the industry and/or community that the employer is a great place for dads to work

Men like having an action plan to follow when it comes to knowing what it means to have a better work/life balance, according to Brown.

He urged employers to listen to employees and help them develop a work/family balance proposal that delivers the business case for doing this and the impact those changes—such as moving to a flexible schedule—will have on the employer.

The proposal should contain measurable objectives that are easy to track, and the employee must understand that his managers need to sign off on the proposal, Brown advised.

Market to men differently

Parenting programs, including survey instruments on parenting, are based on the way mothers parent, Brown said. But fathers parent differently and must be marketed to differently when it comes to promoting a father-friendly workplace and policies, Brown said.

For example, men hear the word “parenting” as a code work for “mom” and tune out.

With this in mind, the National Fatherhood Initiative’s public service announcements try to tap into humor a dad can appreciate. A recent PSA shows a father pushing a swing. Sitting on the swing is a laptop computer. The message reads, “Who are you spending your quality time with?”

Another PSA image shows a father dozing with his children after a day of play and the message, “Create a Father-Friendly Workplace.” The message, Brown said, is that the man in the picture is “working to be connected” with his children.

It’s not enough, though, for HR to create family-friendly policies; it has to help the father and the father’s manager figure out what that looks like, Brown said. He said creating a work/family balance plan means:

  • Helping fathers figure out how they will take advantage of work/family balance policies and benefits
  • Being clear on fathers’ roles and responsibilities at work and at home
  • Having strategies that allow fathers to stay connected while away from the office
  • Establishing guidelines for work during evenings, holidays and vacations
  • Helping fathers develop a process for making career decisions as a family

The National Fatherhood Initiative provides a free template employees can use in creating a work/family balance plan.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org

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