The parent card: Is this really an issue?

photo-65In any given organization, some people are slackers. Others, perhaps, work hard, but don’t care about working visibly hard. Some people are more efficient than others. Some absorb interesting ideas about work, such as that it’s unprofessional to be seen walking out of the office in the middle of the day with a gym bag. These people then project these opinions onto those who do this. Some people who walk out of the office with a gym bag aren’t working hard. Some are.

The point is, none of this rises to the level of grand cultural debate until you phrase it like this: what about parents who walk out of the office at 5 pm? Then we get the Parent Card, and all of a sudden, we have a serious matter on our hands.

Over at the Dear Prudence column recently, a 20-something attorney complained about an epidemic of parent-card pulling in her office. People with kids left promptly at 4:30 or 5, “leaving me to stay late (up to several hours) to finish up work that needs to be done. It’s frustrating — just because I don’t have kids doesn’t mean I don’t have a life outside of work.”

It’s very true that this would be frustrating. It’s also true that anyone with a job can, and should, have a life outside of work. As Prudence points out, if people’s behavior is genuinely creating an unfair workload, our attorney should speak with her supervisor and clarify how duties are divided.

But here’s the thing. I stop work most nights around 5:00. If I were working in an office, I guess I’d be visibly playing my Parent Card to do so. I hang out with my kids for 3 hours. I have dinner. I have a beer. But then I fire up the computer around 8:00 or so and put in another hour. Or two. Sometimes three. I find it hard to believe that in a law firm — probably a law firm where people have to hit a certain number of billable hours — none of our parent lawyers are doing the same. Such split shifts (e.g. 8-5, then 8-10) are a great way to work a high volume of hours, yet still get a life. You don’t get to watch much TV, which is what some people who work from 8 a.m.-7 p.m. do from 8-10 p.m., but that’s the way it goes.

I’d say that most working parents who log more than 45 hours/week — and who have some control over their time, and who value being part of their kids’ lives — employ such a strategy. That’s certainly what I’ve seen from time logs over the years. But you don’t have to be a parent to split your shifts! Indeed, I’d recommend that if our young lawyer wants a life outside of work, she should try such a strategy as well. She can announce that she’s leaving the office too at 5 p.m. 2-3 days per week, “but we’ll all check back in at 8:30, right?” If the parents refuse, well, then you know. But if they say “Yep, like we’ve been checking in every night” — or perhaps even “hey, why don’t we check in at 7 a.m., when some of us are here working, but you don’t notice because you get here at 8:30?” — then you know that this is just a matter of time shifting, and not a campaign by those greedy, self-serving parents of the world to use their offspring as an excuse to be lazy.

Do you work after your kids go to bed?

In other news: I continue to hear from people about the Dandelion Project. Please keep the responses coming! I am collecting time logs from women who earn $100k+ and have kids at home. I hope to build up a data base showing how such people spend their time, and add some data to a conversation often driven by impressions.

Photo: The parent card. Get out of work free!

35 thoughts on “The parent card: Is this really an issue?

  1. I wonder if some of this is cultural. Teachers have long taken work home to grade but have left to pick up their kids and start supper. Attorneys haven’t had the same childcare expectations, perhaps.

    Manufacturing engineers have to distinguish between “urgent” issues that require one to stay late and “nonurgent” issues that can be time-shifted.

    It would be good to know if the issues referred to in the Dear Prudence column are issues that can be time-shifted or if someone has to be present. (In my job, someone had to be available at 6 PM for the conference call with Ireland and Singapore, for example.)

    1. @TG- there probably is some element of norms set, in part, by the gender that’s long dominated a profession. Teachers have long been women, women have been mothers, so mothers leave to pick up kids and take work home. Attorneys have been men (until more recently). It’s interesting to watch how a total gender shift in a profession changes the hours/expectations. OB/GYN is now 90% female. Once it was assumed you had to be able to work whenever because babies come at all hours. Now, OB/GYNs work in teams, you see all the doctors, and each doc is only on call 1-2 nights per week.

  2. I’ve been reading about the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE)- it was an idea piloted at Best Buy (which recently got a new CEO who dropped it, to much less general consternation that the end of the Yahoo telework set up- but then Best Buy’s new CEO is a man). I’m only about 1/3 of the way into the book, but already I can tell you that the proponents of ROWEs would diagnosis this as the inevitable side effect that manages people instead of work, hours instead of results.
    I’ll confess that I rolled my eyes at the Dear Prudence letter when I saw it. I have long argued that people without kids could have the same hours I have, if they are willing to take the same career risks and to stand up for themselves. I think the idea that I just “get” to leave at 4:30 everyday is laughable. I don’t “get” to do that. No one granted me a “go home early” card when I got back from maternity leave. I just do it. I made it a non-negotiable condition of my employment. There were risks associated with doing that, but the reward (time with my kids) was worth taking those risks. If someone without kids wants the same hours, they have to care as much as I do and then they can probably have them. I could recapitulate my entire rant on the subject, but maybe I’ll just link to it instead:
    To answer your question: I only work at nights when I need to, which is generally only during a release crunch. Otherwise, I find I can prioritize my work and arrange my schedule such that I can get my work done during my regular hours. I do sit at the computer after the kids are in bed, though- that’s when I write and do other non-work projects!

    1. I love Cloud’s comments. I get so many people telling me how lucky I am to work at home and only work 4 days a week but what they don’t see is how hard I pursued a change in job after having my son to enable this. I was lucky that the opportunity arose that meant I didn’t have to take a step down career-wise, but I work harder than ever at making it work, so that noone can push me to go full-time or be in the office more. I do work after my son has gone to bed but only at quarter ends when the deadlines loom and I love the flexibility that this earns me, so that for example I can usually go to the supermarket mid-week.
      Perhaps it only suits some people to work this way and you have to be self-motivated, but it works for me and my employer.

      1. @Nick- if it works for you and your employer, those are really the only people who need to be concerned! I love working at home. I’m interviewing a person this afternoon who thinks it’s a bad idea — I’ll report back! To me, the work-from-home thing need not be all or nothing. Working in an office 3x week, at home 2x week might be ideal to get the best of both worlds: productivity and collaborative dividends.

        1. Yes, and actually the best thing is to be in control of your own diary and decide how many times and when you want to go into the office. I am very lucky in that respect.

    2. @Cloud – yeah, often the work I’m doing after hours is blogging – so the same work you are. I just consider it part of my primary job! The one issue with our attorney — which both points against her argument, but makes life more difficult on a work/life balance front — is the billable hours quota. If you have to hit 1900 or 2000 hours/year, then it doesn’t help to become more efficient at your work. If does, in the sense that you can bill a higher proportion of your hours, because you’re quicker at client development or figuring out paperwork/admin and the like, but that chunk of hours is still there, putting a limit on the productivity dividend.

      1. Yes, that is a problem, particularly given the macho culture with high billable hours requirements that has evolved in law. I used to have something sort of equivalent as a contractor- I had a target percentage of my time to spend on direct billable hours. But somehow, that company (or at least my local section of it) had not evolved the macho nonsense, so billing hours actually helped me have a life. I think it is not a straightforward thing.

      2. Oh, and I meant to add- the billable hours culture of law is one of the reasons I rolled my eyes at that letter. The law firm probably already HAS policies that ensure the parents are putting in the hours the company requires. Did the letter writer think the parents were getting a break on their billable hours requirements? She didn’t say anything about this, so her letter struck me as unbelievably naive.

    3. I think what Cloud says is spot-on. I have never been in a situation where I was handed someone else’s work because they had to leave early. (Which is not to say it doesn’t happen, but I think it’s rarer than people make it out to be.)

      I worked part-time before I had kids, just because I was burned out and COULD. It’s a trade you have to be willing to make, if your industry is one that prizes billable hours or face time or heroic 11th hour efforts.

      I think the letter-writer would probably be happier if she focused her efforts on what SHE could do to make her own life better/happier than try to control what other people are doing.

      1. @ARC – wise advice in general. None of us can really control what other people do/think. So probably our own actions is the better place to start.

    4. “people without kids could have the same hours I have, if they are willing to take the same career risks and to stand up for themselves.”

      Amen – one of those “risks” might be the documented risk of being discriminated against in the workplace for being a mother.

  3. This reminds me of back in the day when non-smokers complained about smokers getting more breaks. (Remember when it was acceptable to leave your work to go smoke outside??) My simple solution was to announce I was going for a smoke break when I needed a little time out. People would get a shocked look and say, “I didn’t know you smoked.” I would reply that I didn’t but I was taking a smoke break, and would be right back. It worked. Of course, I didn’t do it 3-4 times every day. My moral of the story: Before bitching about how unfair it is, try enjoying the same perks. But make sure you make yourself valuable enough they don’t mind.

    1. @Christina- I always thought this was half the appeal of smoking anyway — the ability to take a mini vacation with friends in the middle of the work day. And that’s one of the things that makes it hard to quit: you need a break, and it’s a way to relax with other people (fellow smokers). But of course you don’t have to give yourself emphysema to do that.

  4. After I had my son, I adjusted my hours to come in at 7am so that I can leave by 4pm. Usually this works out but occasionally someone will book a 4pm meeting *grumble grumble*.

    I don’t usually work after hours at home (but could/would if necessary) but if I need extra time in the office I come in earlier as my husband does drop off.

    I make sure that co-workers know that I come in early so they don’t think I’m leaving “early”. It still can be frustrating when people think I’m not pulling my weight.

    Oh and I wasn’t always an early bird…before kids we used to have to set an alarm for noon on the weekends or we would sleep all day. 🙂

    1. @arden – I’m curious how you make it known you are in the office early. Send early emails? Drop completed items on people’s desks at 8:30?

      1. A wise boss once told me that if I WAS working late or early that it would be good to “leave a trail” as you mention – usually by sending emails right then rather than waiting till everyone was around.

        It does set up an unhealthy culture of “I work all the time”, though, in certain environments. Especially if the managers start sending out “hey can you answer this?” emails at 10pm.

  5. I’m self-employed and I typically work somewhat of a split shift. I usually work 9-3, then I try to work out and have dinner waiting for my husband and kids. The kids go to bed at 8 and I usually work an hour or two in the evening. Since I only get to see my kids from 4-8 p.m., I’m not giving that time up!

    1. @Holly – sounds like a good system, and that’s certainly how many self-employed people who have kids in school manage to log full time hours without much in the way of extra childcare.

  6. As an economist and an academic it’s really hard for me to wrap my head around this attitude.
    Rationally, people should be paid for their productivity. If the person in question is actually more productive, then she should be compensated more. If management doesn’t know she’s being more productive, then she needs to let them know. If she’s not being compensated, then she needs to stop being a doormat and leave when everybody else does or change teams etc.
    The measuring hours instead of output is common when productivity is difficult to measure. However, law firms often work on billables, so she should be able to show her greater productivity and demand compensation (promotions, salary), if she has that. It’s not like everyone on her team is being compensated equally or has equal opportunity for promotion.

    1. @NicoleandMaggie – it’s interesting to think about law if it worked on a billable dollars vs. a billable hours scheme. If you can convince your clients you’re worth more, then you don’t have to bill as many hours. That would then reward productivity. The way it is now, productivity is rewarded in the sense that you can bill a higher percent of your hours, but not fully rewarded.

      I hadn’t really thought of academia as having very clear metrics of productivity, but I suppose it’s true. Publish 3 papers in a Big Journal and you have done more than someone who’s published 2 papers in a Small Journal.

      1. It’s my understanding that some projects limit the number of billables, and you have to get the thing done under that amount of time. If you don’t, you may have to work uncompensated.
        Actually, I’ve also heard that some companies bill the next company for work they did for the last company because they billed the last company for the work for the company before that. (This was for a consulting company, not a law company.)

        1. Ugh, that sounds awful (and unethical!). Even when we had a fixed price contract or billable hour cap, we consultants entered our ACTUAL time spent and whoever was doing the billing for the client (on one project that was me) would bill for what we agreed to (the lesser number of hours or fixed price).

          This way, the consultants still kept their billable hours stats accurate and didn’t feel like we were working for free. In our case, we were salaried, so it’s not like we were making overtime or anything anyway. But performance ratings were heavily based on billed hours.

    2. I’m told it’s actually the legal clients who demand the status quo billable hours scheme. Attempts to change the billing structure get push back from corporate clients.

  7. I’ve always had a life outside of work even pre-kids. I do think in many, many companies, promotions tend to go to those who stay late and are more visible about their productivity. Even if you do all the right things (make sure your boss is updated on your projects, meet all deadlines etc..) there is often another co-worker who pulls ahead if they stay later. I’m not saying a slacker who stays late gets promoted but if two hard-workers are aiming for the same job, the one who stays late is more likely to get that.

    1. @OilandGarlic – I’m working on a story for a publication on front line promotions — that first step up from the ranks to management. A lot of companies do it mostly on management recommendation, but it turns out that may not be so effective. The rates of it not working out aren’t so much better than for external hires. Even a good manager may not necessarily know what makes a good manager in its raw form. Staying late to be seen — the behavior you mention — may not correlate with being an effective manager.

      1. There’s some interesting new research that shows that hiring efficiency goes up and discrimination goes down when people who are hiring are forced to use metrics do make their decisions. And, it doesn’t matter what the metric is, just that there is one. This forces people to not just ignore the women and minority candidates if they’re equally qualified as is often the case.

  8. I wonder if the letter writer is staying late because she has real work that needs to be done, or because she just *thinks* she has work to do? I used to work with someone who would drag herself to the office with dark circles under her eyes, grumbling about how she’d stayed up until 3 am doing riveting work such as changing the color scheme on a power point. She was a master at procrastinating (by doing “important” projects such as the power points, or crafting emails with different fonts/colors) until a really important deadline loomed and her work became everyone else’s problem. But in her mind, the late nights showed that she was “dedicated.” She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t promoted after all that “dedication.” Ultimately, she was laid off becuase she just wasn’t making a productive contribution. Turns out the boss wasn’t looking for pretty emails (imagine that!)…anyway, point being, amount of time spent at the office means nothing. I do think that clear communication helps everyone – perhaps the parents need to be better about saying things like “I’m leaving today at 3 to go to my child’s science fair, but I’ll work on that analysis later this evening” and non-parents need to be better about saying things like “I’m going for a three day weekend, so I’m planning to stay late tonight and wrap up this project.” We all set our own boundaries and teach people how to treat us, parents and non-parents alike.

    1. Personally I think it’s no one’s business why I’m leaving at 5pm (before and after kids). I wonder if we just said “I have a personal commitment I need to handle”, there would be less bellyaching and comparing of reasons. I’ve done this often and it seems to go unquestioned. I think sometimes people share TMI in the workplace 😉

    2. @Pamela – this is pretty funny. I have seen a lot of time logs over the years, and the good thing about that is it really drives home to me how different people thing different amounts of time are appropriate to spend on things. Some people think it needs to take a full 60 minutes or more to get cleaned, dressed, and ready in the morning. I’m really curious what they’re doing to themselves. I have no idea. Likewise, apparently some people believe that PowerPoint color schemes should consume hours.

  9. Several years ago, I worked for a company that quit designating absences as “excused” or “unexcused” for front line employees (who actually needed to be in their desks or at their posts during specific hours). It was too hard to define: was it OK to leave work for a child care emergency, but not for a sick parent or mental health break? How did management know whether a sick day was the result of a virus or a hangover?

    Everyone got X amount of “personal absences” no questions asked. Some people worried that they wouldn’t have enough time to deal with family emergencies, but the company’s philosophy was that employees should come up with Plan B (and C and D) to reduce those issues as much as possible. If you’re always having child care emergencies, for example, find a new child care provider and/or a back-up child care provider….You don’t always get a pass just because it involves your kid.

    For the most part, it worked. At least the single employees didn’t feel like they were unfairly penalized. People did not have to lie their way to an excused absence.

  10. I don’t get that attorney who wrote in to Dear Prudence at all. Sounds like someone who blames the wrong people for what is in reality their own failure to negotiate with the partners of the firm. I’m going to assume they’re on a billable hours scheme, wherein each attorney will get paid for what they bill. Folks who leave on time will get paid for what they bill, so I don’t see the problem. Nobody is holding a gun to the attorney’s head to make them do someone else’s work. Ugh.

  11. My last year of Medical school i studied every night from 730 til about 10 pm. My childless classmates studied from 4 pm ( when class ended) to whenever they gave in to exhaustion. It was really depressing at times but i passed the tests.

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