Does Corporate America Finally Get What Working Parents Need?

At this week’s White House Summit on Working Families, President Obama and others made a moral case for changing the way we work. “Family leave, childcare, workplace flexibility, a decent wage – these are not frills, they are basic needs. They shouldn’t be bonuses. They should be part of our bottom line as a society,” the president remarked.

Yet there was also a strong business case for change, with vociferous and impassioned representation from our nation’s private sector. Bob Moritz, PwC’s US Chairman and Senior Partner, called on his peers to make significant changes, saying that “CEOs need to make this happen.” He reported that when PwC increased their flex options they saw higher productivity in return.  When they transitioned to unlimited sick leave, the actual number of days that employees took as sick days declined.  PwC offers back-up childcare and other family-friendly benefits because they have found that when employees are worried about issues outside of work, they can’t effectively focus on client needs.

Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, and Joe Echevarria, CEO of Deloitte (attending via video), all expounded on the importance for recruitment and retention of talent of not only implementing family-friendly policies, but for creating work cultures that encourage employees to live full lives.  Makini Howell, Owner of Plum Restaurants, said, “Paid sick leave is pennies on the plate… The employee retention is priceless.” Blankfein described, as an example, Goldman Sachs’ “Returnship” program, which helps senior women re-enter the workforce after off-ramping. And he called out income inequality as a “destabilizing” force for companies and for society.

Raising the floor and addressing income inequality was also a major theme of the day, heard not only by labor representatives and progressive elected officials. Shake Shack’s CEO, Randy Garutti, reported that his employees deserve (and receive) $10/hour as a starting wage. Jennifer Piallat, CEO of Zazie, said, “Not only is it a moral decision to treat my workers well, but it’s also a financial decision.”  Dane Atkinson, CEO of SumAll and serial tech start-up entrepreneur, asserted that there’s a business as well as a moral imperative in pay transparency and pay equity. In fact, as research from Zeynep Ton shows, investing in retail and service workers can benefit not only employees, but customers and the company as well.

It’s refreshing to hear leaders in the business world coming around on these issues because, at a 2000 Wharton Work/Life Roundtable, we made nearly identical recommendations, which have beenrepeated and reiterated in countless places.

What’s new, however, is that the ground is shifting.  The Council of Economic Advisors released a report at the conference, noting:

  • Mothers are increasingly household breadwinners
  • Fathers are increasingly family caregivers
  • Women make up nearly 50% of the labor force
  • Women are increasingly our most skilled workers
  • Most children live in households where all parents are employed outside the home
  • Men as well as women are struggling to find a way to manage work and home responsibilities

As a result, and despite the downturn in the economy and high unemployment, employers are finding that in order to recruit and retain valued employees, they need to take non-work demands into account.

Men are also starting to speak up about family needs, and savvy employers are heeding the call. Enlightened entrepreneurs and CEOs are lauded while those with outmoded, Mad Men-era labor practices are vilified and losing business as a result. Work and life issues are increasingly and accurately understood as social and economic issues, not women’s issues, frills, or charity. As Mark Weinberger, Global Chairman and CEO of EY, smartly noted at the summit: “Women don’t want to be singled out and men don’t want to be left out.”

And while so much remains to be done, it’s heartening and inspiring to see so much executive attention to what has emerged as a national priority – making it possible for men and women to be free to choose the lives they truly want to lead.


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