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How Accommodating Workers’ Lives Can Be a Business Liability

January 4, 1995

BEFORE A meeting recently of a dozen big employers on work-family issues, an organizer of the session predicted that the hottest topic would be ``the entitlement thing.″

I asked why employers would be debating government entitlements like Social Security. They wouldn’t, she explained: Instead, the group would discuss fears of creating work-family entitlements _ a belief among employees that flexible scheduling and other work-family programs can be taken for granted and even viewed as undeniable rights.

Employer fears of creating a new entitlement monster loom large in today’s lean, mean workplace. While many companies see value in promoting family-friendly policies, they also worry about pumping up employee expectations too much, leading them to expect accommodations when none can be made.

A recent wrongful-discharge lawsuit in Connecticut state court is intensifying employer attention to the issue. The suit by Virginia Daley against Aetna Life & Casualty, a leader in family-friendly programs, claims the company unfairly fired Ms. Daley because she asked to work at home one day a week after returning from maternity leave.

Ms. Daley says she had been counting on Aetna’s much-publicized flexible-scheduling policies to enable her to combine her job as an interior designer with caring for her baby. But after Ms. Daley’s son was born, her boss refused her request, then fired her _ she claims in retaliation for a memo she wrote to Aetna Chairman Ronald Compton complaining that Aetna had misled her by ``reneging on its promise″ of flexible work arrangements.

The notion that Aetna would fire someone for asking for a flexible schedule is a little far-fetched; the company has thousands of employees on alternative work arrangements and has won several awards for its policies. An Aetna spokesman says Ms. Daley’s dismissal had nothing to do with her scheduling request; the company won’t discuss why it fired Ms. Daley, but says it is confident of victory. Aetna’s policy says flexible work arrangements ``may be possible″ if ``a mutually workable schedule can be negotiated″ with the supervisor involved, but that staffing needs, the employee’s performance and the nature of the job must be considered.

NEVERTHELESS, in a move certain to scare employers, the judge in the case has taken the unprecedented step of ordering Aetna to survey thousands of salaried employees at its Hartford headquarters to see how flexible schedules are handed out. Philip Steele, Ms. Daley’s attorney, says the data might uncover evidence of unfairness by Ms. Daley’s bosses or negligence by Aetna in administering its policy.

The order exposes a fault line in nearly all work-family policies. Of the two-thirds of large employers that offer flexible scheduling, like AT&T and Motorola, nearly all handle employee requests just as Aetna does _ case by case, with little or no tracking of how and where the practices are used. ``Aetna is just the first employer whose foot got caught in the bear trap,″ says Paul Rupert, a flexibility specialist with Work-Family Directions, a Boston-based consultant.

Most employers aren’t likely to abandon flexibility and other family-friendly policies for fear of litigation. Competition for skilled workers, growth in mobile-office technology, federal clean-air requirements to reduce commuter trips and the expanding workday are all pressuring companies to create a more flexible workplace, as well as to accommodate diverse workers.

Instead, a few employers are starting to tighten laissez-faire procedures. Harris Bank and John Hancock Financial Services are using standard forms for employees who want flexible work arrangements; Lotus Development is experimenting with a similar form.

THE FORMS encourage a systematic approach to flexible scheduling, positioning it as a business tool and asking employees to explain how the change will help the company and how it will be evaluated, says Mr. Rupert. Managers approve or deny the requests and then pass the forms on to human-resources managers, giving the company a tool to detect inequity.

The forms don’t even ask employees’ reasons for the request, freeing managers from deciding whether one employee’s child is more important than another’s plans to get an MBA. ``Managers’ jobs are hard enough without putting them in the role of Solomon,″ says Kimetha Firpo, Harris’s work-life program coordinator. ``It isn’t fair to them. They’re not trained for that.″

And Flexgroup, an employer group organized by New Ways to Work, a nonprofit San Francisco consultant, is developing a ``flexibility audit″ to see how and where flexibility is used in a company.

Other companies offer checklists for both employees and managers to use in discussing employee requests, focusing on benefits to the company and how any problems will be solved, says Karol Rose, a principal with Kwasha Lipton, Fort Lee, N.J., benefits consultants. ``You have to educate both employees and managers that this is a negotiated process,″ she says. ``And you have to find some common ground.″

All the methods are aimed at ensuring that the goals of family-friendly policies are carried out as broadly as possible, consultants say _ not by creating a new entitlement, but by giving every worker a fighting chance to resolve work-family conflicts that threaten job performance.

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