Family first: What working parents should look for in potential employers

Apr 17, 2024

5 mins

Family first: What working parents should look for in potential employers
Michele O'Brien

Freelance writer and podcast producer

A little over four years ago (yes, it’s been that long), the Covid-19 pandemic brought some of the struggles of working parents to the forefront. Nearly 1.8 million women dropped out of the workforce during the first year of the pandemic, citing increased childcare responsibilities at home that made working feel untenable, and nearly half of working fathers (and more than half of working mothers) said the outbreak—and its attendant school and daycare closures—made it difficult to handle childcare responsibilities. Soberingly, a whopping 66% of parents said they were burned out by the whole thing.

Now, daycares and schools are back in business, but the difficulties of juggling caregiving responsibilities with a thriving professional life are still front and center for working parents. And when you’re on the job hunt, it can feel impossible to suss out exactly how each potential new workplace will accommodate your needs as an employee and as a parent.

Legally speaking, parents are not a protected class, and thus not protected by federal law from employer discrimination simply by virtue of being parents. However, some states and municipalities, like New York, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia, do have more stringent discrimination protections for working parents. So, if there’s little legal recourse for discrimination, how can working parents identify the signs of a workplace that will recognize and accommodate their caretaking responsibilities?

A guide for working parents

To help us identify red flags and green lights, we turned to Daisy Dowling, executive coach and founder & CEO of Workparent. Dowling turned to helping working parents figure out what works for them when she was pivoting back to work from parental leave and found herself “frustrated and honestly embarrassed by the fact that … there was not a lot of solid, practical, tactical … Tuesday morning at 8am type advice for working parents.” But, craving a “What to Expect” type of manual for the new stage she was about to embark on—and finding none—she set out to do the research to create her own.

What organizations can do to support working parents

Explains Dowling, “There are really three different things organizations can do [to support working parents]. Think of it as a three-legged stool: there are programs, there are policies, and there are practices.”

Programs, like a working parents employee resource group or organized mentorship for new parents, and policies, like parental leave, are fairly visible supports. But, says Dowling, parents tend to give short shrift to organizations’ practices, “those small day-in-and-day-out things that actually form the texture of your working life.” For example, how does your boss react when you suddenly have to leave work to take your infant to the doctor, or when your six-year-old, home from school on a snow day, runs in the background of your Zoom call? Or, for shift-based work, how flexible is management with you switching a shift with someone else in order to be there for a school concert? These practices—sometimes explicit, but often unspoken—are the real indicators of how friendly a workplace is to working parents.

Beyond parental leave: True indicators of family-friendly workplaces

Often, parents on the job hunt use the amount of paid parental leave or hybrid work availability as a bellwether for a potential employer’s attitude towards working parents. But, says Dowling, those are bad indicators at best, red herrings at worst. For example, professional services companies—think consulting or law firms—often offer a lot of paid leave, but expect working parents to jump right back into 14-hour days, making work and only work their priority the minute their leave is up.

Assessing a potential employer’s family-friendliness

Instead of focusing on parental leave during the interview process, Dowling suggests, ask to speak to working parents who are already at the organization to see what their experiences have been. Or, use your own network (like LinkedIn) to find current or former employees you can speak to. Often, people are more willing to have a candid conversation with someone in the same position they were in.

There also might be opportunities in the interview process to begin the conversation about support for working parents: if you’re in a hiring manager’s office and see a family photo, use that as an opening to ask what it’s like to fulfill the job responsibilities for someone with children at home. Cautions Dowling, tone and timing are important here: “It’s like dating. The goal of the first date is to try and get to a second one … It’s not to try and get engaged.” Asking later in the interview process, and more tactfully, often sends a gentler, easier-to-digest message to a potential employer than saying from the beginning that work-life balance is a priority. But, says Dowling, “Once you get to the stage where you’re about to get an offer. I really recommend putting your concerns or questions upfront.” Underline that you’re confident in your ability to do a good job in the context of your parenting responsibilities, but clarify things like your working hours, or the number of days per month you’ll be able to travel. As you’re working towards a final job offer, those things are worth codifying; if your responsibilities are going to be dealbreakers for an organization, it’s better to know before you sign the offer letter.

Choosing the right job as a working parent

Many of Dowling’s clients are high-performing employees in demanding fields, who may have been used to working 10-14 hour days before they became parents and hold themselves to incredibly high standards. But once they become working parents, keeping up that amount of work is virtually impossible for most. And, says Dowling, many are hard on themselves for not being able to be both a fully available employee and a fully available parent. Additionally, they’re not getting messages from their employer about what working parent performance looks like, and what their company’s norms are. So, she advises, take stock of the kinds of jobs you actually want to take in this season of your life. “To what degree do you wish to work for an organization that is not supportive of you? Think holistically [about] what’s going to work for your life and try to find a role that meets that.”

Working parents seeking new opportunities: Key takeaways

As working parents navigate the complexities of balancing family life with career aspirations, looking beyond the surface when considering potential employers is key. The right workplace will not only boast supportive policies but will actively practice flexibility and understanding. Here are some key takeaways to guide you in your search for a family-friendly workplace:

  • Evaluate day-to-day practices: When looking for a job as a working parent, assess not only the organization’s policies and programs but also its day-to-day practices, from management down. How management handles emergencies or unexpected needs can tell you more about the company’s culture than any formal policy.
  • Look beyond parental leave: While parental leave is a significant benefit, it doesn’t always provide a complete picture of an employer’s support system. Engage with current and former employees in your network to gain real insights into the workplace environment and how accommodating it truly is for working parents.
  • Match the job to your current life needs: Acknowledge that your life has evolved. Consider all aspects of your life when looking for new roles. If a high-demand job doesn’t fit with your parenting responsibilities, it’s okay to seek something that aligns better with your current situation.

Remember that finding a workplace that values and supports working parents is crucial not only for your personal well-being but for your professional success as well. A truly supportive environment will recognize the dual responsibilities you manage and help you excel at both. Choose a role and an organization that fits your career aspirations while enriching your family life.

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