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Peaceful Revolution: Facing Up to the Consequences of Paying Lip Service to the "Work/Life" Agenda

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I recently experienced the visceral alienation of those who fall outside the "work/family" paradigm and it brought me up short. Of course I have written about a "work/life" approach - in an effort to be inclusive - but if I am honest I probably had more of my heart in the "work/family" camp. My wake-up call came about this way.

Last month I was commissioned to write an online opinion (for a national news service) about the recently introduced "right to request flexibility" ("r2r") laws in Australia. Under this law, from January 1, 2010, eligible employees will have the right to request, of their employers, access to a flexible work arrangement. The legislation also provides that an employer must respond in writing in 21 days and that a request can only be refused on "reasonable business grounds."

I'm a big fan of the r2r but I titled my opinion "Looking past a golden opportunity" to highlight some research we had conducted which found that - 3 months out from the start date of the r2r - the organizations are generally unprepared for this innovative legislation. In particular we found that 81% of employees and 80% of managers had no or a low level of knowledge about the r2r, according to the survey respondents (63% of whom were from Human Resources - so you'd think they would know best). This attention gap could be the distracting side-effect of our focus on the global financial crisis or it could be because the r2r is buried in a new act (the Fair Work Act 2009) which overhauls Australia's industrial legislation.

Irrespective of the reason, I see this knowledge gap as problematic as the legislation provides a workable framework for transparent conversations about flexibility, and evidence-based decision-making. And that was the focus of my article - or so I thought. What was picked up by the deluge of on-line comments was the unfairness of legislation that gives rights to some people (namely parents with children under school age, or children under 18 with a disability), and not others, for example:

It's always the breeders who take the rights. What about special consideration for those caring for aged or infirm parents or siblings or partners? When I hear 'family friendly practices' I want to vomit.

And:

Those of us who choose to benefit the planet rather than selfishly pass on our own equally worthwhile genes, by remaining childfree get what? Stuff all ....

I was stunned. I had struck a nerve, but not the one I had intended. I had thought that readers would see the logic of a legislative starting point that was relatively narrow in nature, i.e. one that would allow employers to get used to the new regime and then lead to expanded rights over time for all careers, which is exactly what had happened in the United Kingdom. What (some) readers saw was exclusion: working parents are in an inner circle which is deemed worthy of primary support, and they are not.

And it struck me that they are right. So many of our legislative initiatives have working parents at the centre, working families (e.g., those with elder care responsibilities) in the outer ring, and working "lifers" (do we even have a name for this group?) left out. And this carries over into workplace policies. We may entitle the policy "work/life," but what we really mean is "work/family," and what gets pride of place even in this group are parents. How can we expect employees to behave in a collegial way towards each other if our workplace practices endorse a hierarchy of "needs"? I may have opened a can of worms here, but isn't it time we face up to the practical consequences of paying lip-service to the work/life agenda?

A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.

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