Fathers Know Best

New dads today are expected to -- and want to -- play a bigger role in helping to raise their children. Yet some companies still haven't gotten the message.

Sunday, October 16, 2011
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More than ever, fathers are beleaguered by work/life issues, according to several recent studies. But you wouldn't know it talking with Matt Berry, an IBM marketing director who is on the last day of his two-week paid paternal leave.

Berry is at his two-story, four-bedroom colonial home in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., attending to daughter Lyla, who was born on Aug. 22. To hear Berry tell it, the stresses of the workaday world simply disappeared as he bonded with his daughter. No BlackBerry, no phone calls, no emails -- well OK, one or two emails.

"Those early days are magical in terms of spending time with the baby," says Berry, who also took a two-week leave when son Jack was born in April 2010. "[The leave] gave me the opportunity not to have to think about work or anything else."

Berry considers himself fortunate to work for IBM, a leader among large U.S. companies in offering father-friendly benefits. The 400,000-employee, Armonk, N.Y.-based firm received an award from the National Fatherhood Initiative and is regularly included on Working Mother's Best Companies list. Another dad-friendly company is SAS, a 12,000-employee, Cary, N.C.-based software firm that has ranked No. 1 for the past two years on Fortune's 100 Best Places to Work list.

At companies such as IBM and SAS, offering father-friendly -- and, more broadly, work/life -- benefits is viewed as a key recruitment and retention strategy. And the attention paid to dads' wants and needs couldn't be occurring at a more propitious time. Several studies indicate dads are increasingly engaged with their families but experiencing more work/life conflict.

A voluminous 2009 report from the Families and Work Institute, Times are Changing: Gender and Generation at Work and at Home, found that fathers in dual-earner couples feel significantly greater work/life conflict than mothers and that this stress has risen steadily, as more wives spend longer hours at work while fathers are increasingly -- and indeed, want to be -- more involved in their children's lives.

Yet many organizations are apparently clueless or indifferent to fathers' concerns. And one reason for that may be that many dads fear speaking up, especially during a downbeat economy.

"Part of the problem is that fathers are our own worst enemies: We tend not to demand [flexibility]," says Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a Germantown, Md.-based nonprofit offering fatherhood resources and services. "Also, men don't organize the way women do around these issues. In many cases, they are huddled masses yearning to be free."

For organizations that ignore father-friendly and other work/life benefits, Kathleen Lingle issues a warning.

"Our projection is that there are a lot of employees out there now with pent-up frustration who will leave their organization the minute they can," says Lingle, executive director of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based WorldatWork's Alliance for Work/Life Progress.

Pigeonholed as Breadwinners

Sixty-six countries, not including the United States, ensure fathers either receive paid paternal leave or have a right to it. A number of U.S. organizations do offer PPL on their own, however. A 2011 benefits survey by the Society for Human Resource Management reveals that 16 percent provide PPL, down from 17 percent in 2007.

As companies with worldwide operations, IBM and SAS are attuned to parental benefits globally and in this country. The companies' two-week PPL is among the most generous in the United States. At SAS, about 150 dads annually take advantage of the policy.

Many IBM dads also make use of its PPL, although the company did not have specific numbers available at press time. Their participation can be partially attributed to the fact that the company's HR professionals and line managers are trained to communicate the leave and other work/life benefits, says Ron Glover, IBM's vice president for diversity and workforce policy and a father of three. It also helps that senior leaders, some of whom are fathers themselves, occasionally use the leave, he says.

This is vitally important, says Lingle. "Managers and leaders need to demonstrate action, not lip service, that they themselves use these policies and consider them to be culturally embedded -- the natural way work is done, for the good of the enterprise and all of its stakeholders," she says.

Although the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees eligible employees 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave during any 12-month period to care for a child, many fathers don't take advantage of it. In fact, only one in 20 took as much as two weeks paid or unpaid leave after their most recent child was born, according to The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted, a 2011 study of 1,000 professional fathers by the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

It isn't that fathers don't want to bond with their newborns. Asked by the Center's researchers what their employers could do to support them as fathers, most responded "some form of paternity leave." But many fathers are reluctant to seek formal time off or even reduce their hours, in part because of worries about their bosses' perceptions, the study reports. "More than 99 percent" of dads reported that their managers' work expectations either remained static or actually increased after the birth of their child, the study says.

"Because fathers are sort of pigeonholed as breadwinners, I believe there are still a lingering number of people in senior roles in organizations who think that [the father] will be even more career-focused" after a child is born, says Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College center. "Deep down, they may expect more because they think he wants to be a good provider, because he has more mouths to feed."

In fact, it appears that perception begets reality. A 2011 Families and Work Institute analysis of 1,298 employed men entitled The New Male Mystique revealed that dads in dual-earner couples are working three more hours weekly than men their ages without children.

But there are signs that the work-centric focus of many fathers is changing, especially among Generations X and Y, says Kerstin Aumann, lead author of the FWI study and an institute senior researcher.

"We do see a generational trend, for sure," says Aumann. "Younger fathers are much more family-oriented in the sense they really do want to be actively involved in their children's lives. Much of it probably stems from their own experiences growing up, when they most likely had fathers who put work first."

At IBM, Glover believes his company's father-friendly -- and overall work/life -- benefits are increasingly playing a "huge part" in attracting younger workers. The benefits also boost job satisfaction and retention, he says.

Told that fathers at some organizations hesitate to take parental leave for fear it may derail their careers, Matt Berry offers a quick response: "That's almost the opposite [situation] at IBM . . . . I know my manager has two teenagers, and she kept saying over and over, 'You'll never get this time back. Enjoy it. No pressure.' "

Fearing Marginalization

While many fathers appreciate time off to bond with baby, their most frequently cited need for helping balance work/life issues is greater flexibility, according to the Boston College study. The most common types of flexible-workplace-arrangement (FWAs) dads preferred: telecommuting and working flexible hours, the study said.

And if fathers -- indeed all employees -- are offered high levels of flexibility, several significant benefits accrue to organizations, according to a 2008 FWI analysis of 3,500 employed people. That study said those employees are more likely to be healthier; be engaged in, and more satisfied with, their jobs; and remain with their employer.

The Boston College study reports the "vast majority" of fathers use FWAs informally. The study speculates that dads didn't feel they needed formal permission. But it could also mean, the study says, that fathers are more comfortable using flexibility in a "subtle or stealth fashion" to avoid negative, career-limiting implications -- arriving at work later or leaving earlier than in their pre-dad days, for example. 

"It could mean 'I do it [flexibility], but I'd rather not bring it to people's attention,' " says Harrington. "I think dads are worried that if they make this formal, it may put them in a basket of people who are marginalized or on the back burner for their career track."

At SAS, flexible work schedules are one cornerstone of the company's operations. Flexibility is managed within each team and between managers and their employees, enabling them to work when they can be most productive, says Allison Lane, a SAS spokeswoman.

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"By extending trust and flexibility to our employees, it sends the message that they are worthy and capable of the job at hand," says Lane. "And it's precisely that kind of message that will empower them to . . . not only meet but, perhaps, exceed expectations."

At IBM, "about 44 percent" of employees, including many fathers, don't work in an assigned company workplace, says Glover. They might work from home, at a client's office, on the road or in some type of mixed model, he says.

IBM's senior leaders support a flexible work environment; in part, for pragmatic reasons: It enhances productivity, says Glover. In today's globalized world, IBMers need elastic schedules to communicate with others multiple time zones away. Also, with many mothers working, fathers are required to meet the varying needs and activities of their children.

Plus, says Glover, traditional work schedules mean many employees would spent countless, unproductive hours commuting.

"What we try to do is create an environment where, first and foremost, employees can get the work done that they're accountable for," says Glover. He adds, "Fathers now want to work at organizations that respect their right to manage their calendars to meet the needs of the client in the business, but also do so in ways that acknowledge they need to sleep and do family and other activities as well."

Berry typically works out of his Somers, N.Y., IBM office three days per week, from New York City one day and from his New Jersey home one day. "Incredible" is how he describes his flexible schedule.

"I have friends who are envious about the flexibility I have," says Berry, adding that his working wife's company isn't nearly as accommodating.

Reasons to Stay

While PPLs and FWAs are embraced by many fathers, other services and resources also rank high -- including on-site daycare, a common benefit sought by fathers, according to the Boston College study. Unfortunately, the 2011 SHRM benefits survey reports only 4 percent of organizations offer a subsidized childcare center on-site or nearby; another 4 percent provide a nonsubsidized center on-site or nearby.

At SAS' headquarters, on-site child- care is subsidized. Although IBM doesn't offer subsidized childcare, it has relationships worldwide with about 250 childcare centers that are located near work sites and extend priority to IBM employees. A majority of the centers also extend priority access to IBMers for back-up childcare.

IBM also helps pay eligible expenses related to adoption, up to $2,500 per family per adoptee. Additionally, the company offers two programs for employees' special-needs children: a web portal connecting families to important information for these kids; and a Special Care Assistance Fund, which provides up to $50,000 per child to cover costs beyond IBM's medical and dental benefits plans for kids with mental, physical or developmental disabilities.

IBM also produces a wealth of educational material for fathers as well as supplemental benefits for families. Among other things, the company offers online parenting resources, webinars and a CD entitled Being a Dad and a website helping dads -- and moms -- create healthy and safe environments for young children. Moreover, the company offers a program on obesity prevention in early childhood, homework assistance and tutoring, and help with preparing children for college.

Glover says he was pleasantly surprised when a fatherhood webinar several years ago was quickly oversubscribed. He assumed most participants would be women seeking information about how to get their spouses more engaged in caregiving.

"Ninety-nine percent of the participants turned out to be men who wanted guidance about how they could do a better job of integrating work and family," says Glover.

Meanwhile, SAS offers a bundle of father-friendly benefits beyond PPL and FWAs. For instance, a full-time SAS parenting consultant works in the company's work/life department. Consultant Dana Aderhold oversees a parent discussion group and list-serv that touches on issues relevant to fathers.

Among SAS' parenting resources are educational seminars targeting men and dads on stress management and the modern role of fathers. Other parenting resources include books, audio books, videos and brochures.

"At SAS, our experience is that fathers have the same questions and concerns as mothers," says Aderhold. "The one challenge [fathers] face is that there are millions of resources out there for working mothers -- blogs, books, magazines, websites and conferences -- but almost none for working fathers, even though the expectations and work/life balance issues are the same or very similar."

As a two-time father, Berry can identify with that take. That's why he's appreciative of the many father-friendly services and resources offered at IBM. "I've worked for IBM nine years," he says, "and these [services and resources] are some of the reasons that I stay with the company -- and have no reason to leave." 

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