Diversity, With Life

At FleetBoston Financial, work/life is a priority for Anne Szostak. The challenge, she says, is to realize that one size does not fit all.

By Grae Yohe

Anne Szostak recently had two words added to the end of her job title: "... and diversity." It made sense, because managing diversity is really what she had been doing at Boston-based FleetBoston Financial Corp. since taking the job seven years ago. At a company whose history includes more than 150 mergers and acquisitions (one of them the1999 joining of financial giants BankBoston and Fleet Financial Group), diversity -- at least corporate diversity -- is never in short supply.

Szostak, FleetBoston's executive vice president and director of human resources and diversity since 1994, a Fleet employee since 1973 and one of Human Resource Executive's 2001 Honor Roll recipients, is responsible for managing these transitions, making sure that employees don't get lost in the shuffle. The BankBoston/Fleet Financial merger, in particular, involved more than 60,000 workers.

"We wanted to support our employees so their experience was positive," says Szostak, noting that the meshing of the companies' benefits was a major concern. To merge the programs, Szostak pulled elements from each. "We didn't just take one or the other approach. We took all of [them] because we felt that each company had a lot to offer." In the end, the workers got the most out of the deal.

"A satisfied employee is an employee who can serve our customers better," says Szostak, who has made increasing on-the-job satisfaction one of her primary goals. This means handling corporate transitions in a way that encourages mutual growth, not back-stabbing. It means managing diversity, in all its forms. It also means making sure that working is not the only thing that employees do -- so that when they are on the job, they are really on the job. Private lives, in short, are good business.

Fleet's work/life programs, allowing employees to mold their jobs around their lives rather than vice-versa, are second to none. Szostak points to flexible work hours, part-time employee benefits and a child-care and elder-care hotline as a few of the highlights. Fleet also sponsors a group that allows parents, within the company framework, to discuss child-care and parenting issues. One program offers a $5,000 stipend to employees who adopt.

"I do believe it's work/life integration -- in terms of figuring out a way every day to have your work and your home life together -- so you feel good about the things you're doing on a daily basis," says Szostak.

Szostak's commitment to work/life has paid off. A recent Towers-Perrin benchmarking study of 13 financial institutions ranked Fleet first in number of programs offered and number of programs aimed at care of dependents. In 1999 and 2000, Working Mother magazine added Fleet to its list of "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers." As a working mother herself, Szostak is particularly pleased.

"We're very proud," she says, "but also humbled by it. It was a journey we took to make the cultural and program changes needed to feel that we would be a good candidate for the award."

Fleet is constantly refining its programs. Internal surveys are conducted to determine worker needs. These, as well as exit interviews, all point to Fleet's work/life focus as a huge plus.

The evaluation and feedback process did not stop with internal surveys. Under Szostak's guidance, FleetBoston partnered with the Radcliffe Public Policy Center to determine the need for and effect of work/life programs. For the study, entitled Life's Work: Generational Attitudes Toward Work and Life Integration, Szostak worked with Paula Rayman at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

"This was a time period when the industry was going through a lot of changeover and turbulence," says Rayman, now a professor with the Research Foundation at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. "Fleet itself had just undergone a number of mergers and acquisitions. We asked the question, 'Can you work and have a life?' "

Szostak, says Rayman, was instrumental in the direction of the study. "What Anne brought to the project was her interest in and knowledge about diversity issues -- the notion that one size does not fit all for work/life. We wouldn't have paid as much attention to those issues without her pointing the way." According to Rayman, Szostak emphasized that the study would need to take into account differences among employees in terms of age, marital status and cultural background, among other things.

A later study, Szostak adds, would add one more item to the diversity list: gender. "Men wanted as much work/life integration as women did, but didn't always feel the permission in society or within their respective companies to say it," she says, noting that Fleet's programs are for men and women alike. "Work/life ... should not just be one gender. It's a parent thing. It's a human thing."

In 1997, Szostak made a presentation to Congress on elder care. She cited Fleet's programs, but also her experience in caring for two aging parents. The hotline, she says, is not an empty benefit. It helped her through a difficult time.

"If you feel that we're an employer that cares about you through different life stages, then our bet is you'll have a higher likelihood of staying with us," she says. Despite Fleet's success, Szostak notes that its work/life programs are constantly evolving. "This is a journey," she says, "not a destination."

Nov 1, 2001
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