The Communication Divide: Why Working Parents Won't Share and Employers Won't Ask

Among other things, the pandemic offered up a brutal spotlight on the intersection of career and family. Working parents, desiring both a successful career and a happy, healthy family life, were caught in the crosshairs of a system pushed to its breaking point. But don’t be fooled, these challenges have been around for years, lurking in a quiet corner where working parents were afraid to talk about it and their employers were reluctant to ask.

Why the disconnect?

For one, there’s a stigma around employees sharing their struggles with managers and HR. There’s an unspoken (and unfounded) assumption that if an employee is struggling with work/life balance, they’re not dedicated to their job. Because of this, working parents worry about the potential backlash from speaking up; they’re concerned they’d face missing out on new opportunities, promotions, and raises at best, and being moved to the front of the line at the chopping block at worst.

No one wants to have their professional drive, their career goals, their commitment to the company called into question.

As a result, many working parents choose to struggle in silence until the cumulative effects of stress and anxiety take a toll on their physical, mental, or emotional wellbeing. Managers may see the impact as increased presenteeism or absenteeism, but what is perceived as an individual’s problem is rarely seen as a systemic problem within the organization.

On the other side, many employers are skittish to engage in any conversation that may relate to protected class status. Employment laws are in place to protect employees against discrimination based on demographics like race, gender, age, marital status, pregnancy, and family status. These protections are necessary (no, you cannot ask a job candidate about their childcare situation.), and some hesitation on the part of employers is appropriate. Unfortunately, these laws have the unintended consequence of stopping other important conversations from happening.

Not quite following? Consider this - the 2019 Harvard Business Review “The Caring Company” report showed a huge disparity between what employers assume and what employees self-report when it comes to the impact of caregiving responsibilities on work productivity. Among employees, more than 80% report feeling their caregiving responsibilities affect their productivity at least some of the time. Only 24% of employers felt there was a perceived impact.

That’s a gap of immense proportion. With employees not sharing, and employers not willing to ask, how can we move forward?

The Current Forecast

This struggle is most clearly seen through the lens of the childcare crisis. Women - and most notably Black and Hispanic women - left the workforce, forced to give up their careers to care for their children in the face of school and childcare closures. Layer on news that worker anxiety is at an all-time high, and speculation about the upcoming Great Resignation many are left wondering how to navigate our way out of this mess.

Given the current global climate, many organizations don’t have the human resource capital to dedicate to this issue. Especially now, with the fallout from the pandemic, competing priorities often mean important projects get pushed aside to make way for critical ones. Watch out, this issue is critical, and the way your organization deals with the retention risk will define its success.

There are signs that change is on the horizon. Many employers responded to the call by increasing benefit offerings, focusing on expanding parental and family leave, childcare assistance, and mental health and wellbeing programming.

How can you move the needle?

Listen in

You can’t solve a problem you don’t know about.

If your organization typically doesn’t seek feedback from employees, start by utilizing surveys and polls, especially if there’s hesitation to engage with employees on perceived sensitive topics. These easy-to-implement data collection tools don’t need to collect identifying information, so employees may be willing to share their thoughts honestly and openly. Use these as a starting point or as periodic “pulse checks” for your employee base.

While surveys help get an overview of the situation, the drawback is that there’s no opportunity for directed follow-up questions or requests for clarification. Facilitated listening sessions with focus groups and roundtable discussions allow for a deeper dive into the intricacies of the working parent experience. Frame these conversations as a learning opportunity for HR and management, and put guardrails in place to protect the information your employees share. What gets said in a listening session stays in a listening session.

If you have a parent-centric group (an ERG, BRG, affinity group, etc), create an opportunity to collaborate. Leaders of these groups have valuable insight, access to parents, and would be the perfect ally for your feedback initiative.

Start strong

Consider the very first interaction a parent would have within the organization when they first disclose they (or their partner) are expecting a baby. This can be a time of confusion and frustration for expectant parents; navigating the ins and outs of unclear parental leave policies and researching family-friendly benefit information is often anything but “friendly”. This doesn’t leave your employees with a great first impression, and it can be the first time they consider not returning after parental leave.

Change this perception and set a more supportive tone by flipping the script to provide just the opposite - an engaging and celebratory touchpoint that clearly and consistently showcases everything expectant parents need to know right now. Not only will your employees get the information they need, but it will also reassure them that your organization is transparent, capable, and willing to support them through this major milestone.

If your organization isn’t comfortable with these conversations, that’s ok, but don’t bury your head in the sand. Consider bringing in an outside facilitator, an expert in working parents, to bridge the gap between what your Human Resources team wishes they could ask and what your employees wish your organization knew.