Married to job
Married to the Job
By NANCY GIBBS
Having watched the mommy wars rage last fall around Sarah Palin’s approach to work-family balance, I’ve been intrigued by the French premiere of this movie, starring the country’s glamorous, embattled Justice Minister, Rachida Dati. Five days after giving birth by C-section to her daughter Zohra, Dati left the hospital and headed to the Elysée Palace for a Cabinet meeting. Cue the controversy, let fly the judgments: What about bonding and breast-feeding and savoring the glory of a social system that allows women 16 weeks of paid maternity leave? (See pictures of Sarah Palin on the campaign trail.)
Like Palin, Dati is a special case; but the harder the times, the heavier the symbolism. And since Dati raced back to her desk amid a global economic meltdown, her decision took on a public as well as a personal dimension. A French feminist compared her to women in the 1920s who gave birth on the factory floor and kept working for fear of losing their job. Another called her choice “scandalous” since employers could use it to “put intolerable pressure on women” to take less time off. What a pernicious example at a moment when workers are already anxious about their security.
Back in the rest of the world, companies don’t need to cut benefits if workers do it for them. You can hear it when you talk to working moms, all the old theme songs played at twice the volume. Do I dare ask for flextime? Miss the meeting for the doctor’s appointment? Governor Palin made it sound as if it was all in a day’s work when she talked about juggling BlackBerry and breast pump. But as conditions get worse and 75,000 jobs turn to powder in a day, the strain on survivors can only grow. It doesn’t help that on TV every Tom, Dick and Suze keeps telling us that this is a good time to “dig in and show your boss how good you are. Take on extra projects. Shine at whatever you do.”
A job, like a marriage, has its honeymoon phase, its strengths and strains and things that make us crazy. But now as all our emotions are rewired, we are grateful for what we once just assumed and frightened of things we once ignored. It would be lovely to rely on the wisdom and benevolence of bosses everywhere to realize that when people are frightened about losing their job, loyalty, productivity and morale all plunge. If employers are tempted to exploit such fears, squeeze more work out of fewer people, roll back benefits because there are 100 people lined up for every job, they may find that as in so many things, the short-term fix is long-term dumb.
I caught up with economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who has studied these issues forever. She’s the founder of the Hidden Brain Drain task force, a group of more than 50 companies–including GE, Goldman Sachs and our own mother ship, Time Warner–that are exploring how employers can hang on to the people they can least afford to lose. Especially when companies need to reinvent themselves to survive, she warns, they can’t afford the huge costs associated with stressed-out talent: “It’s not good for the bottom line,” she says, “and it’s not good for individuals.” The Harvard Business Review looked at a survey of what happened in companies that went through layoffs of even 1% of the workforce: among the surviving workers, they typically saw a 31% increase in turnover. Bigger layoffs led to even higher turnover. Top performers always have options–and, Hewlett notes, women are twice as likely as men to voluntarily walk away, not dropping out but finding a safer haven. What worries her is that when the smoke clears, there may not be many women left in the higher reaches of the workforce. “We’ll have lost the mentors and role models for the next generation.”
Still, things are not entirely gloomy. FORTUNE just released its annual list of best companies to work for: No. 1 is NetApp, which gives workers five paid days of volunteer work, adoption aid, autism coverage–and has gained market share, avoided layoffs and banked $2 billion in cash for these rainy days. Wegmans supermarkets (No. 5) offer workers free yoga classes; biotech leader Genentech (No. 7) features paid sabbaticals, on-site child care and a fitness center; its revenues jumped 25% last quarter. Hewlett suggests even struggling companies that have moved to a four-day workweek rather than fire people may promote both morale and quality of life.
Maybe Rachida Dati didn’t rush back to work because she was scared of losing her job; maybe it was because she loved it. Who knows? But more and more often, I hear people talk about their jobs in a new way: “You have to renew your vows,” as one friend puts it. Smart employers know that it works both ways.