“There is a world of difference between caregiving and workplace flexibility,” Joan Williams, brilliant thinker and founder of the Center for WorkLife Law, told the EEOC last week. Her discussion focused on the very common misconception that family responsibilities discrimination is about alternative work schedules – a mistake so common that even Judge Preska of Bloomberg fame confused the two when she mistook discrimination against mothers for complaints about a lack of work/lifebalance.
Why are FRD and flexibility different? FRD arises as a result of interactions between supervisors and workers who have family caregiving obligations. It springs from the supervisors’ assumptions and biases – which they are often not consciously aware of – about the commitment, dependability, and value of such workers. The existence of flexible work programs does nothing to change the supervisors’ mindsets. This is all the more true given that flexible work programs are frequently poorly implemented and do not include training to prevent flexibility bias, let alone training to prevent FRD.
Mistaking FRD and flexibility can be expensive for employers. If having flexible work programs lulls them into to thinking they do not need an FRD prevention program, they may be in for a costly lesson: almost 30 companies that received recognition from Working Mother magazine for their family-friendly policies have been sued for FRD. Moreover, the business benefits of FRD prevention, such as increased productivity and reduced attrition costs, will be lost to them.
Effective, non-stigmatized flexible work programs are a win-win for employers and employees, of course, and can help caregivers be more productive employees. Employers who combine FRD prevention and well-implemented flexible work are going to be in the strongest position to attract and retain a loyal and engaged workforce while at the same time staving off lawsuits – and that means they will come out on top.