A Simple and Obvious Fix for Caregiver Discrimination

Jill Traxler says that when she went out on leave to care for her mother, her supervisor in the Multnomah County government told her that her absences had caused a lot of things to be left undone and people had to cover her work while she was gone; she was terminated soon thereafter.

Father and Baby at workKhaliq Drew says that when he asked for leave to take care of his father, who had just been diagnosed with leukemia, his supervisor at Plaza Construction repeatedly said “You’re killing us” and terminated him.

Jeri Hagemeyer claims that when she was terminated, her supervisor at Corporate Security Solutions told her that it was partially because they could not afford to have someone out of the office all the time, especially with her being sick and being pregnant with twins.

When you read this, you immediately grasp one of the primary causes of family responsibilities discrimination (“FRD”).  Employers have to have employees who can work.  Employees have to have time off to take care of family members.  This clash between fundamental needs has led to a litigation nightmare for employers and unimaginable stress for employees.  It doesn’t have to be this way, however; a simple – even obvious – solution may save the day.

FRD arises in part because of a mismatch between the workplace and the workforce.  Workplaces are structured around the idea that families have one breadwinning adult and one stay-at-home adult who takes care of family matters.  Employers assume employees can work full-time without taking significant leave, work overtime with no notice, and travel or relocate at whim.  The problem is that while that may have been a good model in the 1960s, most workers today are single or in a dual-earner family and do not have someone taking care of their family matters full time.  Mismatched expectations and needs lead to frustrations that escalate into FRD.

Two forces make it likely that FRD is only going to increase.  First, the economy: as companies pull out of the recession, most are trying to do more with the same number of employees, requiring everyone to work harder.  Second, demographics:  women, who still do most of the caregiving in our society, make up about half of all workers; men are more actively involved in family care than ever before; and seniors requiring care from family members are a rapidly growing segment of the population.

This means almost every employee is going to need to take significant amounts of leave at some point in his or her career.  Even family-free employees are likely to need time off for their own medical conditions.  This realization suggests a way out of the FRD morass.

If employers expect that every employee will take a significant leave, they can create work coverage plans that will allow work to flow smoothly in spite of absences.  Companies have contingency plans to continue operations in the event of natural disasters that most likely will never occur, so why not have contingency plans for keeping work going in the event of a much more certain-to-occur disruptive event?

Here is how work coverage plans would work:  supervisors, working with individual employees and HR, would create a plan for each position, identifying how that position’s work would get done if the employee occupying the position was unavailable for three to six months.  Ideas for getting the work done include cross-training other employees to take over, hiring a temporary replacement, and outsourcing.  Disaggregating the responsibilities of the position is another way, designating some as high priority that will be picked up by others and some as unimportant that will remain undone until the employee returns.  Some work coverage plans may include a domino effect, shifting several people in order to provide necessary coverage.  The planning can take place as its own initiative, or can be done as part of succession planning or talent identification programs.  Work coverage plans should be reviewed annually at the time of performance evaluations to make sure that changes in the duties of a particular position are reflected in the plan.

An important benefit of work coverage planning is the shift it causes in expectations.  Supervisors will expect that employees will take leave, regardless of gender, marital status, or parenthood.  This subtle shift in thinking should have noticeable effects, reducing the frustration and feelings of betrayal that often underlie FRD. It may also lessen supervisors’ tendencies to discourage men from taking paternity leave, and combat the unspoken beliefs about women’s availability and commitment that can stymie their advancement.

Work coverage planning alone won’t solve FRD, of course.  Bias against caregivers is a fundamental cause of FRD that must be addressed.  But it is a practical and effective first step toward aligning the needs of the workplace with the needs of the workers.


What is your company doing to address family responsibilities discrimination? Contact us for help managing pregnant employees, getting the most from employees who care for family members, and preventing lawsuits. Download our free FRD Prevention Checklist, and subscribe to our updates.

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