The University Record, June 5, 1995


Workplaces slow to address work/family issues

By Julie A. Peterson

When consultant Wendy Shepherd was working some years ago as a secretary in a psychological clinic, her mother was dying of cancer. Approaching the Thanksgiving holiday, she desperately wanted to spend the long weekend with her family. She volunteered to trade shifts with others, to work nights, weekends, anything in order to have that Friday off--but to no avail. Her employers demanded that she return to work, despite the fact that no patients would be seen that day.

"I was bitter," she said. "So when I came back to work, I decided I would sit and do nothing the whole day. I realized I was copping a bad attitude. But at lunch I even started looking through the want ads, and within three months I had left. I wasted their time, and in effect they paid me to look for another job."

Her experience--far from unique--is an example of how employers have been slow to come to grips with the ways in which employees' family concerns affect their work.

"We have a society that values work more than parenting," noted Shepherd, who has two children and consults with organizations about work-family issues. Her presentation May 18 was part of the Workplace of the '90s Conference.

Although some employers seem to wish that family issues would go away, they will not. "You may get a call at 6:30 in the morning that your care provider is ill," Shepherd said. "Or that the furnace broke at the school. Or that the weatherman has already measured five inches of snow on the ground. Then there is the day when just before leaving the house, your child turns several shades of green and runs for the bathroom. While you know you have to get to work, you also know the tremendous responsibility you have as a parent."

How to handle all this stress? Although Shepherd indicated she is pretty good at juggling, both figuratively and literally--and then proved it by keeping first balls and then scarves up in the air--she also offered some useful advice for those of us less dexterous.

Conquer by planning. Have a contingency or back-up plan for every crisis you can think of. Plan ahead for what you will do if your elderly parent is ill, the school is closed, etc. Call on family members, neighbors, parents of your child's classmates and others in advance to see if they can assist in a crisis.

Research day care centers and other facilities that may serve as an emergency back-up. Investigate sick child care or negotiate for flex time, work at home or bringing your child to work. "You want to put yourself in the position where you're not caught off-guard a lot," Shepherd said.

Keep a sense of humor. Shepherd told how once, when rushing off to a work-related presentation, she found her keys would not open the car door. After several moments of frustration, she realized she was holding her infant's multicolored, plastic toy keys. Another time, when dressed to impress a client, she found she had a baby booty sticking to one sleeve. "I had to laugh because I realized my kids are always with me, even when I'm working."

Invest time in yourself. "In an airplane, what they tell you is to take the oxygen mask and put it on yourself before you help someone else," Shepherd pointed out. Pursue a new hobby or rediscover an old one -- "something that is really indulgent and makes you feel good."

Learn to say "No." Or, "Not now." Or, "I can't." Said Shepherd: "If you're a person who's biting off more than you can chew, it's your own darn fault. You need to adjust your schedule so you're doing a manageable amount."

Lobby for change. Pressure schools to be more flexible in allowing for parental involvement and in planning activities around working parents. Negotiate with employers for family-friendly changes in the work environment, especially if you can show how such changes will save the employer money or make you more productive. But, said Shepherd, you should go in with a plan, not just a complaint. Show that you've thought through the issues from the employer's perspective and offer a solution.

"We have a lot of technology that can assist us," she noted, "and there are very few jobs outside of medical jobs where the person has to be there all the time.

"Employers should be able to adjust ... in order to keep quality workers, because it costs so much to hire and train people," she added.

If all else fails and your juggling act seems impossible to bear, you may have to reconsider your current job situation.

"Sometimes there comes a time when you have to change your work; when you say, 'Maybe this isn't the right career for me right now,'" said Shepherd, who decided to work as a consultant out of her home in order to have a more flexible work environment.

How do we choose who will represent us on an 'alien planet?'

By Janet Mendler
News and Information Services

When 35 people are asked to choose the best six people in the world to represent our planet to an alien culture, how do they decide? Do they make rational choices based on the best information available? Do they make random selections? Do stereotypes hamper their decision?

In "Visit to an Alien Planet," one of the sessions at this year's "Workplace of the '90s" conference, participants in the first day's session exhibited what co-leaders Kay Clifford and Charlene Schmult of the International Center called somewhat remarkable similarities.

In a simulation game designed to expand players' knowledge with respect to diversity, groups were asked to narrow a field of potential visitors to an alien planet from 12 to six, based on as much, or as little, information as they chose to acquire.

An alien visiting Earth, explained Clifford and Schmult, had to return to her planet and wanted to be accompanied by a group of "ordinary people" rather than heads of states, diplomats or government officials. A worldwide lottery pared the candidates to 12, and now six had to be chosen. The alien also expressed interest in the decision-making process. In her time on Earth, she was intrigued by the amount of time we spend talking, yet was struck by how little we understand each other. On her planet, early training sensitizes people to subtle moods, pleasures and discomforts of others. She found verbal maneuverings such as "rationalizing" amusing, and "denying one's feelings" bound to make both speaker and listener crazy.

Ranging from the basics--age, sex, citizenship--players were able to learn about candidates' health, profession, religion, the reason they wanted to visit and positive or negative attributes each possessed. On the positive side, comments included "frugal, hard-working," "strong sense of social justice," "very loving and giving." Less positive were comments such as "too critical of subordinates," "no formal education," "prejudiced against men." One group received complete information, the rest "purchased" as much or as little as members felt necessary to make good decisions.

Some groups at the session chose to gather all available information about the candidates; others valued diversity in profession, age and reason for visit. Some asked for partial information about each potential visitor, complete details about others.

When the groups reconvened, Clifford and Schmult asked a spokesperson to list their six finalists and compared those results with the group that had full details. Groups explained how they reached their conclusions, and whether any discord occurred in the process.

One group voted, another chose to emphasize positive and negative comments, still another based its decision on age and citizenship diversity. Unlike players with international backgrounds, the Workplace players placed very little emphasis on religion, something that is valued very highly in non-Western cultures, Clifford and Schmult noted.

Of all the times Clifford and Schmult have facilitated "Visit to an Alien Planet," the Workplace group showed the greatest degree of consensus in its final selections, perhaps, they speculate, because almost all the participants were female and few racial minorities attended.