HR News & Trends

Does Your Workplace Truly Have a Culture of Flexibility?

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A college professor breast-feeds her child during class and a firestorm erupts at the school and across the Web.

Some are outraged that she’d dare expose her breast in front of students, others are angry society is still so uncomfortable when it comes to breast feeding.

But the bigger workplace implications go beyond the Internet hyperbole.

The story of the breast-feeding professor should spark a conversation about whether there are enough options today in the nation’s offices, factories, etc., to help working women and men deal with family issues, if those options are adaptable enough to fit a diverse workforce, and are employees able to take advantage of them.

Breast feeding in class highlights work-life debate

The professor in question is Adrienne Pine, an assistant anthropology professor at American University, and a single mother who brought her sick baby girl to class because she claimed to have no other child care options and didn’t want to call out on her first day of the new school year. Her predicament made national news this week with a story in The Washington Post titled, “American University professor breast-feeds sick baby in class, sparking debate.”

University officials are claiming she had a host of alternatives, including “sick leave, break times and private areas for nursing mothers to express milk,” according to the Post article.

Adrienne Pine, in her Department of Anthropology page at the American University website.

What actually happened in Pine’s case may never be known for sure, but her situation brings up a number of issues employers and employees have to start thinking about.

“We used to think about work-life issues as a “mother’s issue,” now that’s changing to include fathers, but it seems like the conversation is still very much grounded in the traditional two-parent family model,” explained Kerstin Aumann, senior research associate for the Families and Work Institute. “The work-life conversation needs to evolve and become more inclusive of the diverse range of family situations today. Single parents face different challenges when it comes to managing work and family than parents who can count on a partner.”

And, Ken Matos, the Institute’s senior director of employment research and practice, pointed out that “for those who relocate for school and/or work and end up raising a family far from where they grew up the support networks of grandparents and extended family members can be an unattainable luxury.”

The short-term emergency problem

There’s also the issue of providing adequate time off for employees on short-notice to deal with emergencies and illness without excessive financial penalties,” noted Matos.

“Just over a third of employers offer a paid time off plan that allows employees to take time to attend to any personal matter including vacations and sick time. Of the remaining employers about half offer some amount of sick time to their employees,” he said.

But even with sick time available, Matos advised employers to think about “What are the tactical realities of getting support or alternative coverage for an employee’s responsibilities (e.g., do they work in a team or have a peer who is able to handle work that can’t be put off to till his/her return to the office)?”

In the case of new moms who want to return to work and want to breast feed, providing a place to do so is key.

Our research found companies are getting better in this regard but still have a long way to go. In 2008, 53 percent of employers provided women with private space for breastfeeding, up from 37 percent in 1998. And it may even become more widespread if health-care reform survives because there was a provision in the controversial legislation to mandate that employers provide such accommodations.

Limited choices – despite a supportive employer

But even for those companies that offer such a space, is there a process by which women can take 10 minutes to breast feed and not cause a major disruption to the workday? And what about the impact on an employees career when they do choose to take advantage of workflex options?

Pine wrote an essay about her experience on CounterPunch.org, and mentioned how supportive and family friendly her employer has been. But she saw her choices as limited on that fateful day in August when she breast feed in front of her class:

“I have tried to maintain as much of a separation as possible between my small family and my professional life,” she wrote. “But desperately weighing the situation, it seemed that I had little choice. I could not bring her to day care with a fever, and I did not feel like it was an option to cancel class.”

In the end, adds the Institute’s Matos, “It may come down to whether an organization has a culture of flexibility where, 1) employees know who to bring these issues to and that they are not going to be penalized for doing so and 2) employers are open to reevaluating their work processes to find ways to get work done well and support employees in their personal and professional lives.”

This was originally published on the Families and Work Institute website. 

Eve Tahmincioglu is an award-winning workplace columnist, director of communications and a blogger for the Families and Work Institute, founder of CareerDiva.net, NBCNews.com's workplace contributor, and author of "From the Sandbox to the Corner Office: Lessons Learned on the Journey to the Top." You can follow her and the Families and Work Institute on Twitter, at Facebook, or contact her via email at etahmincioglu@familiesandwork.org .
  • Allison O’Kelly

    You are exactly right, Eve, when you say that the work-life debate has extended past mothers, to fathers, and now, to everyone.

    Managing work and life is a strain familiar to everyone, and flexible work environments are becoming a universal priority among all workers. Flexibility does not only pertain to flexible hours or remote options, but as you mentioned, even simple considerations like having areas that mothers can breastfeed create a culture of inclusion and flexibility, as well.

    — Allison O’Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps