Kids at Work: How Much Is Too Much?

Baseball player’s retirement ignites debate over parents bringing children to work

By Dana Wilkie Apr 7, 2016
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When baseball player Adam LaRoche announced last month that he was leaving the Chicago White Sox because he was asked to limit his son’s presence in the clubhouse, the news triggered a public conversation about the propriety of taking children to work.

With “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day” approaching April 28, it seems an ideal time to ask: When it comes to bringing kids to work, what is and isn’t appropriate?

“The essence of this [LaRoche] story is a culture clash between a workforce that increasingly wants to be more present and involved in their children’s lives and a workplace that is operating by rules that say work and family should be separate,” said Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute (FWI) in New York City. 

What’s Appropriate?

LaRoche brought his teenage son, Drake, to practices regularly. Drake had a locker next to his father’s at the Sox’s training facility in Glendale, Ariz., and at U.S. Cellular Field, where the team plays its home games. He is reportedly home-schooled.

Sox Executive Vice President Ken Williams told reporters that he needed to draw the line somewhere, as many players might have similar requests about bringing their kids to the clubhouse.

“I don’t think [Drake] should be here 100 percent of the time. And he has been here 100 percent, every day, in the clubhouse,” Williams told reporters. He added, “You tell me, where in this country can you bring your child to work every day?”

LaRoche subsequently announced his retirement—forfeiting $13 million on his seasonal contract—and explained in a letter posted on Twitter that “As fathers, we have an opportunity to help mold our kids into men and women of character, with morals and values that can’t be shaken by the world around them. Of one thing I am certain: we will regret NOT spending enough time with our kids, not the other way around.”

While precious few occupations allow an employee to bring a child to work constantly, opinions differ on how often kids should be allowed at work, under what circumstances and in what types of workplaces.

No matter how mature or well-mannered a child is, “children change the dynamic of professional interaction,” the Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh wrote in an opinion piece after LaRoche’s announcement. “All exchanges risk becoming more awkward or unnatural. Nobody dares say so out of fear of being the jerk who complains about the colleague’s kid …”

Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom wrote that “this is about policy—which workplaces are entitled to set. Otherwise, what stops all 25 White Sox players from bringing their kids in? Don’t you think cops, firemen and soldiers want to be with their kids, too?”

There are a number of concerns to address when it comes to bringing kids to work, Galinsky said. First, an employer should consider whether it’s safe for employees to do so. Some workplaces are never suitable for kids—for instance, those in which machinery or other equipment pose a safety hazard.

Second, she said, the employee should consider whether the arrangement is beneficial to the people involved. “Is it beneficial for you? Can you get your work done? Is it beneficial for [the kids]? Are they sitting in front of a TV or on an iPad all the time or doing something meaningful? And is it beneficial for your co-workers?”

When her own children were young, Galinsky worked at a college. Because the college taught educators, her children’s school was in the same building where she worked.

“They came to my office every day after school, and they had ‘jobs’ that helped out the people in my office,” she said. “There were places for them to go so that they weren’t disruptive for me and for others. It was a truly wonderful way to raise children—they knew so many fascinating people and the culture welcomed them, so it was like a second family.”

Finally, Galinsky said, there need to be clear limits about bringing kids to work that “are discussed and agreed upon. And there need to be opportunities to assess whether it’s working.”

Workplace Policies

A sample policy from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reads, “The presence of children in the workplace with the employee parent during the employee’s workday is inappropriate and is to be avoided except in emergency situations. This policy is established to avoid disruptions in job duties of the employee and co-workers, reduce property liability, and help maintain the company’s professional work environment.”

While some employers allow children at work only in emergencies, Galinsky said others are far more lenient about having kids in the workplace.

She noted that summer is a tricky time for working parents of school-age children, as kids are out of school, summer camps can be expensive, and many day care facilities tend to care only for children younger than 5 or 6.

“I remember interviewing a secretary at Johnson & Johnson who brought her school-age son to work with her over summer vacations,” she said. “She was a single parent and wanted her son with her. The boss encouraged it, but it wasn’t a policy. [The son] is grown now and works at J&J himself.”

According to the forthcoming FWI-SHRM 2016 National Study of Employers, 3 percent of employers provide child care for school-age children on vacation.

Carla Moquin is founder of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute based in Salt Lake City, which offers employers resources and research on bringing kids to work. She said many of the companies she consults with allow older children to come to work after school, on snow days or when day care arrangements fall through.

“We believe that the majority of companies could allow parents to bring their older children to work on a regular basis very successfully,” she said. “In our experience, as long as there are clear guidelines, allowing school-age children at work can be very beneficial for families as well as businesses. Obviously, the children have to understand the expectations of the work environment and be well-behaved or it won’t work.”

Moquin said her organization has talked with companies that didn’t have clear policies on bringing kids to work and experienced difficulties and misunderstandings.

“Participating parents were sometimes not sensitive to the needs of co-workers or did not monitor their children’s behavior,” she said. “This often results in companies deciding to implement a blanket prohibition on children coming to work. A children-at-work policy really needs to be treated like any other workplace policy.

For example, you can’t expect to have a free-for-all situation with other workplace issues like vacation time or office locations and expect it to be successful.”

Moquin’s organization also offers advice on bringing babies to work. Most of the organizations listed on her website allow employees to do so only until the child is six to eight months old or crawling, whichever comes first. [http://www.babiesatwork.org/baby-inclusive_industry.html]

“Babies have successfully come to work in office-based settings, cubicles, open-plan spaces and retail establishments,” she said. “They have come to work in law firms, credit unions, government agencies, marketing firms, stores and schools, among many other industries. Babies typically thrive in the social environment of a workplace.” 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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