Confessions of a benefits manager: Striking a work-life balance

Big Bad Boss wants me to review and Europeanise the new work-life balance policy produced in the US.

Confessions of a benefits manager

In case you haven’t come across the word ‘Europeanise’ before, it means to make a ridiculous US policy into something sensible and workable over here. He probably should have asked my colleague Lazy Susan to look at it; she has taken work-life balance to a whole new level, so you can barely tell she is working at all.

I have to hand it to our HR team in the US: one thing it can be relied on to deliver is quantity. The work-life balance handbook is 40 pages long, the manager’s ‘quick’ guide is 20 pages, and the training presentation has 35 slides. There is also a request form, a self-test questionnaire, and a frequently-asked-questions document, all neatly laid out on a specially designed web page showing pictures of happy employees.

How thorough. Unfortunately, all together it takes up nearly 150 pages to say absolutely nothing. There is not one definite rule, not one definitive statement of practice. You could read the lot and still not have the answer you are looking for.

Usually, I like a loose kind of policy like that: one that leaves it wide open for you do something sensible and practical without too much bureaucratic process to follow. But this is just too wordy. It is the sort of thing that gives HR a bad name. It gives management the impression that there are far too many HR people, paid far too much, all just to complicate their life with multiple, unnecessary processes. Hm, they might have a point.

So many documents

I go back to my US colleagues to try to understand the need for so many documents. It seems the managers over there complained that the handbook took too long to read, so they had to create a shorter guide for managers. And the rest of it? People kept asking for more information that wasn’t in the handbook. So wasn’t a shorter, more focused handbook an option? But it’s too late now: the work-life balance tome is nearly published, although you might need to take a day off to read it.

Apparently, the legal team in the US has already reviewed this policy, but I am not impressed. Understandably, it focuses on the legislation it is familiar with, but it doesn’t even reach out to check whether there might be different international laws. All it really needs to do is add a statement such as ”or as determined by local legislation”, but in this case it hasn’t even done that. I will need to send it to our European legal team, which at least recognises that other countries exist.

The handbook tries to make out that the company is totally flexible about part-time working, but I know that around here, being part-time carries status equivalent to being the weakest link in a quiz show. The policy suggests working part-time is something staff might only do if they have a life-threatening illness or a short-term family emergency. At no point is it positioned as a viable ongoing work structure.

In the UK, as in most European countries, employers need to give serious consideration to requests to work part-time, but, as a rule, they don’t have to agree to them. Our company won’t agree to anything unless it is for the benefit of the organisation. I know that those who try to agree shorter hours become part-time pariahs. In the eyes of the management team, they are work-shy slackers.

Home working

The work-life balance documentation also covers home working. Again, home working is treated as a special dispensation to help employees get their work done around pesky family commitments. I am reminded of a female executive who told us how she managed her work-life balance by making a point of being home for dinner with her family. She proudly told us she was able to do this by working from home in the evenings to catch up on her emails. Lucky family.

I can understand why the policy hasn’t even touched on the problem of weekend and evening emails, which is just too endemic in our company culture. The French may have legislation to protect them if they fail to answer an email out of hours, but try that with some of our managers.

I fully support legislation to protect employees, but rarely does it serve the purpose intended. Anyone making a legal issue out of treatment at work here is not going to have a work issue to worry about for too long. They might get compensation, but they won’t get a career. Not in this company.

Conference call

One Higher Being in the US even has a regular conference call with his direct reports on a Sunday evening, so as not to distract them from their work during the week. I haven’t heard anyone dare to complain. I am not even sure any of them really mind. Their wives are probably busy answering emails after dinner, anyway.

The only reason the work-life document has been sent to my department is that work-life balance is seen as a perk, rather than a practice. Also, it seems they didn’t really want my feedback on the whole policy, but just on the single sentence that refers to home-working expenses, which are pretty much for the employee’s own account. There isn’t a lot I can say about that.

I’d love to put some edits into the policy to actually support true flexible working, but it would be no more helpful than well-meaning but impotent legislation: you can’t influence work-life balance when the executive team think that work is our life. All I can do is try to make sure the policy is legally compliant.

Next time…Candid gets on her bike