Despite recent progress, some parents still feel the need to downplay their family obligations in the workplace. HRM explores how organisations can dismantle this idea.
In 2017, a four-year-old girl in a yellow jumper became an internet sensation after busting into her dad’s office during a live interview. Professor Robert Kelly was speaking to the BBC via Skype about the impeachment of the president of South Korea when his daughter Marion sauntered her way in, followed by her curious baby brother and very frantic mother – who attempted to quickly wrangle the children without being seen.
Later, when the BBC posted the clip online, the family became famous, Marion in particular. However, in the immediate aftermath of the interview, Kelly thought his career was over.
“I thought I’d blown it in front of the whole world,” Kelly told The Guardian.
While having your child burst into the room mid-way through an important video conference is part and parcel of working life these days, the fear Kelly felt in 2017 is unfortunately too common among working parents, especially those who work in organisations where ‘children are neither seen nor heard’.
This tendency to hide or downplay aspects of one’s family life outside of work is called ‘secret parenting’. It happens when working parents worry they’ll face potential career backlash from employers who view parents as less committed to their roles.
Hide and seek
Economist Emily Oster coined the term ‘secret parents’ in 2019 when writing for The Atlantic about normalising parenthood in the workplace.
Examples of secret parenting can include employees hiding pregnancies, avoiding talking about their children, and using sick leave instead of carers leave when their children are unwell.
There might be legitimate reasons an employee doesn’t discuss their home life at work. For example, segmenters – people who value the separation of home and work – might not feel comfortable sharing that kind of information with an employer. Where employers need to improve is when working parents are hiding their families due to an assumption that parenthood is incompatible with work, or because the culture you’ve created sends the message that parents will have a more difficult time progressing.
While workplaces might support parents during parental leave, Oster refers to a “polite fiction” that happens when they return.
“After the first several months of leave, the child disappears into a void from which he or she emerges for viewing and discussing only during non-working hours,” Oster writes.
In 2020, that notion was shattered by nationwide work-from-home orders. All over Australia parents were experiencing exactly what Kelly had dealt with three years earlier. Kids were Zoom-bombing left, right and centre and parents’ obligations were laid bare as their family and work lives clashed right in front of their employers.
It also became painfully clear how much more support parents needed to balance their family and work commitments. Oster observed that generous maternity leave policies weren’t enough to support parents. What employees needed was an ongoing acceptance of parenthood, from both a policy and cultural leve.
In 2019, online property exchange network PEXA introduced a raft of new policies to support working parents. Alongside generous leave entitlements for primary and secondary carers, PEXA included a monthly stipend for childcare and created a school holiday program for primary-school aged children.
“We know child care is important to our employees … so adding that additional level of support really just made sense,” says chief people officer Linda Hibberd.
The school holiday program is hosted at the PEXA offices, allowing parents to see their children while they’re at work. They can even have lunch together and it makes the pick up after work that much easier.
The school holiday program became even more important when COVID-19 hit and PEXA realised parents needed something to entertain kids who were stuck at home. The program was moved online and expanded to include an after school program.
At PEXA, parents and the action of parenting, is a visible part of life.
While PEXA’s initiatives go above and beyond what is usually expected of employers, Oster says providing child care-friendly policies works in the employers favour too.
Even offering options like flexible work (which is much more common these days) can reduce employee turnover, absenteeism and poor engagement, especially for parents.
At PEXA, Hibberd explains the programs have actually played a role in talent attraction.
“It has generated a lot of interest in the external market, and we’ve had a lot of people ask about it. It has been an opportunity for us to continue to build on our employee value proposition and also attract some really wonderful talent,” says Hibberd
We have well and truly moved beyond the ‘mum, dad and 2.5 kids’ family model. Some workplaces are doing more to acknowledge this and support ‘non-traditional’ families.
Software giant Adobe’s Adoption Assistance Program offers up to USD $25,000 to cover expenses relating to adoptions, including legal fees, court fees and travel expenses for international adoptions. In January this year, it expanded the program to include employees outside the US, including in Australia.
Adobe isn’t the only organisation offering such a program. In the US, there has been a growing interest in adoption benefits since 2008. Global hotel chain Hilton introduced adoption assistance in 2017. The following year, it was named the best US workplace for parents. When an organisation takes the time to put working parents on its agenda, it can have tremendous ripple effects in putting your workplace at the top of the list for prospective employees – while also keeping your current workforce happy and engaged.
Leading by example
Oster says that to stop secret parenting, parents need to stop being secretive. This could be a daunting prospect for some employees, so it’s up to managers and senior executives to take the lead.
If managers are honest with their employees about why they might be leaving early (“I need to pick the kids up”) or why they need can’t have meetings after 5 p.m (“I promised I’d make pizza tonight with my daughter”) then employees lower down the ladder are going to feel comfortable being honest about their situation too.
Hibberd believes making a workplace that is ‘pro-parent’ allows employees to bring their whole selves to work and to not feel like they need a hard separation between work and family life.
“If your people or your teams are not able to be their true selves, it makes it very difficult for them to be [and do] their best,” she says.
“We can’t talk big about how we want our people to be their best but not actually allow them to do that.”
Managing our work-life balance is becoming increasingly difficult.
Register for AHRI’s ‘Workplace support to enable effective work-life management’ webinar to learn how improve it in your organisation.