Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Family-Friendly Firms See Bottom-Line Benefit

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Family-Friendly Firms See Bottom-Line Benefit

Article excerpt

At Fel-Pro Inc. in Skokie, Ill., a worker who wants a tutor for her child can get the auto-parts manufacturer to foot the bill. ConAgra Inc. in Omaha, Neb., will send a nurse to an employee's home for up to 12 hours to care for an unwell child or parent. Patagonia Inc. in Ventura, Calif., gives new fathers up to eight weeks paid paternity leave.

These companies represent a growing shift in corporate America toward family friendliness.

It's an issue businesses have been grappling with since the early 1980s - how to help employees better balance work and family responsibilities. Back then, executives viewed it strictly as a "women's issue," and the extent of a company's family-friendly benefits was usually to set up an on-site day-care facility. Today, however, two-career families are the norm, and corporate downsizing has lessened job security while increasing demands on remaining employees. According to Harvard University economist Juliet Schor, Americans spend about a month more at work each year than they did 20 years ago. In addition, executives - many of whom are immune to the impacts - are starting to hear about workplace trials as their own children enter the work force. As a result, the work-family connection has emerged as one of the biggest issues facing corporate America. This year, for the first time, Business Week published a rating of family-friendly companies. Today, more corporations are expanding their universe of programs to include child-care and elder-care referral services, flexible work arrangements, and adoption benefits. Some businesses have even designated posts such as work-family manager and work-life coordinator. For many firms, this approach is nothing less than a competitive advantage. "In the final analysis, it is the area where companies are going to compete," says Bradley Googins of the Center on Work & Family at Boston University, which co-authored the Business Week survey. Still, work and family researchers are quick to point out that while companies have made great strides in identifying workers' needs and offering benefits, such programs don't do any good if employees feel they can't use them without being penalized. "Research shows that the most important aspect of helping workers balance work and family is not the programs but the {work} culture," says Arlene Johnson, vice president of the Families & Work Institute in New York. "Yet companies still struggle with the perception that these benefits are accommodations or favors." For Ellen Kullman, the family-support programs at DuPont Company in Wilmington, Del., have made it possible for her to balance both. Vice president of white pigments and mineral products and the mother of three young children, Ms. Kullman finds that her schedule is packed. She often works 12-hour days and travels about 40 percent of the time. The company's emergency child-care and referral services have helped her. "When my child was in day care, and she would get sick, my husband and I would have to figure out how to cover that," she says. Now, DuPont's service helps her find alternative arrangements. Kullman also works from home several days a week to be with her children. "All of it has made my life and my job enormously easier." Companies with the best work-family practices tend to be in industries that face fierce competition for workers, consultants say, including banking, insurance, and pharmaceuticals. BankBoston created a work-force effectiveness department two years ago, and offers employees flexible work schedules and child-care and elder-care referral services. Recently, the bank changed its 10-day sick-leave policy to include caring for relatives or friends. One gauge of how far companies have come is Working Mother magazine's survey ranking the top 100 family-friendly firms. When the list debuted 11 years ago, only 30 companies were worthy of recognition. Today, "there is a frenzy to get on it," says Milt Moskowitz, a workplace expert who compiles the survey. …

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