Phone: 612-624-5551
24-hr number: 612-293-0831

Advanced Search

This is an archived story; this page is not actively maintained. Some or all of the links within or related to this story may no longer work.

For the latest University of Minnesota news, visit Discover.


Two University employees helping a customer at an information desk.

Two university employees serving a customer at the College of Continuing Education's information desk. Among its family-friendly benefits, the U offers flexible spending accounts for child care expenses. (To learn more about the U as a place to work, read "A great place to work.")

Family friendly to stay competitive?

By Kate Tyler

From eNews, August 4, 2005

Consider this: At Company A, an employee telecommutes about 15 hours a week so that he can be home with his toddler when his spouse is away on business. At Company B, an employee's request for a reduction in work hours or an extra month of leave time is denied, and she's forced to quit her job to care for her disabled child.

Erin Kelly, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, wants to know how such disparate policies have developed in U.S. workplaces. More specifically, she's studying, over time and across industries, the role public policy plays on such employee benefits as leaves, childcare, and flexible work arrangements.

"My goal is to understand how we've gotten the benefits we now have," says Kelly. Because the important question, is "can we improve on what we have?"

The conventional wisdom, she says, is that market forces mostly drive family-friendly policies--employers keep workers happy to stay competitive in the labor market. But as Kelly's own research has documented--she conducted an exhaustive study of nearly 300 companies--market forces don't fully explain workplace policies. "Workplace policies are dramatically shaped by national public policy and by legal regulations, as well as by normative expectations about what a good employer should do," she explains.

About three fourths of U.S. companies covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) had maternity policies in place before Congress passed the law in 1993. FMLA opponents "used this to argue against federal regulation, suggesting that employers were addressing the need for leaves in response to market conditions," says Kelly. "It's true that maternity leave largely developed in the 1970s, but the spur was public policy." In 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act--which barred discrimination based on race or sex--prohibited organizations from firing pregnant women. The ruling was contested, and even set aside by the U.S. Supreme Court, before being written into law by Congress (under pressure by feminist and labor groups) as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.

"We found that even contested regulations have a noticeable impact on policies," Kelly says. "Companies don't wait for settled law. Most employers responded to the first (1972) regulation by adding maternity leave; there was another spike after the 1978 law."

With flexible work arrangements, Kelly found widespread support for allowing employees to "flex" their hours or to telecommute from home occasionally. But these arrangements were often ad hoc, only rarely written into formal policies. "Managers worried in part about opening the floodgates--'how would we manage if everyone were to do this?'" she says. Even companies with formal policies, she found, made them discretionary.

Kelly was surprised by her findings. "Typically, employee benefits have been viewed as quasi-legal rights that would help employees in negotiations with employers," she says. "A new father, for example, could negotiate for a 10-week leave by citing his company's human resources manual. But by making flex time a privilege, not a right, companies avoid creating 'entitlements'... This shows resistance to legalization. Employers want to set their own limits, maintain control."

"On the 'pro' side, discretionary policies make flexible arrangements less scary to management," she adds. "A few employers do it, the sky doesn't fall, managers learn how to supervise someone who's in the office just three days a week... all this helps build a culture that includes flex time. [On the 'con' side,] flexible arrangements seem to be used as a perk to reward people performing well--the favorites. The irony is that the working parent who is really frazzled and not at her best probably won't have access to flex time, but if she did, her performance might improve."

Another concern, says Kelly, is that "research has found a lot of unintentional and unconscious racial and gender bias in the evaluation of workers, so this, too, may create real inequities in who's allowed flexible options."