The Parent Trap

Family-friendly policies sound great on paper. But taking advantage of them could hurt your career. Here's how to make sure that doesn't happen to you.

AFTER THE BIRTH of her second child, Susan Douglass returned from maternity leave full of optimism about her future at Ernst & Young. Just a few months before, the management consultant had received a strong midyear review and had been told she met most of the criteria to be partner. Best of all, she could now stay on that track without neglecting her children. Her employer, through a video touting its new family-friendly policies and support from its recently created Office for Retention, gave every signal that it endorsed flexible work schedules.

Eager to participate, Douglass requested a four-day schedule, with a maximum of two nights a week on the road. The retention office even helped her draft the plan. But one month after submitting it in 1998, she was fired.

Her contention, spelled out in a lawsuit pending in federal court, is that she was booted for acting on policies that "turned out to be nothing more than a public relations tool." Says Douglass, 45, who now runs her own consulting company in Atlanta: "I trusted my firm, but it lied." (Ernst & Young declined to comment, but in court documents it claimed Douglass was merely a casualty of a larger staff reduction.)

It was only a few years ago that employers rolled out family-friendly polices to woo and retain scarce workers. But despite all the hoopla, employees are finding that taking companies up on their offers, particularly now that the economy has tightened, can come with a price: Management may question their commitment. According to University of Iowa research, professional women who make use of flex or part-time schedules and telecommuting receive lower raises than their peers, despite little difference in productivity. "Managers prefer workers who are in front of their face all the time and don't ask for any kind of accommodation," explains Iowa sociology professor Jennifer Glass.

It's not just women who suffer the backlash. "A lot of companies that offer paternity leave do not expect men to take it," points out American University law professor Joan Williams, director of that school's gender, work and family program. "And if men insist, they are given a lot of grief."

Sarah Joyce knows the feeling. Before she gave birth to her first daughter two years ago, she was the golden child at a Chicago law firm. But after shifting to a part-time schedule, she lost her status, not to mention choice assignments: "They saw what they had, and they wanted that person back." Joyce, who had been receiving annual raises of as much as 15%, got only a modest 3% that year and has since left the firm.

With that kind of backlash it's no wonder more employees don't take advantage of work-family programs. In one recent study, Bickley Townsend, senior fellow of Cornell University's Careers Institute, looked at 5,000 upstate New York working parents and found that nearly half who had paid family leave available never took it. "The policies were on the books, but employees didn't feel like they had permission to use them," she says.

Part of the problem: Support for such programs doesn't always trickle down to middle managers, many of whom are under intense pressure these days to make do with fewer resources. So for employees who want to make use of family-friendly policies, the key is to show your immediate boss that it won't hurt productivity. Natalie Gahrmann learned that firsthand while at a large telecom company that had been touted by Working Mother magazine as a great place to work. She figured her manager would happily endorse her job-share proposal so she could care for her child. The manager's reaction: not my concern. A few months later Gahrmann, pregnant again, approached the same manager with a telecommuting plan — this time detailing how she'd continue to meet deadlines and train the woman who'd fill in while she was on maternity leave. Her boss signed off. "There was nothing for her to be concerned about," says Gahrmann, now a workplace coach in Hillsborough, N.J. "I made it perfectly clear that the work would get done."

Getting the green light is only the first step. Managers who sense that you view these perks as an entitlement won't hesitate to take them away — or make you sorry you opted for them in the first place. The trick: Show your gratitude and willingness to make sacrifices. For the past five years, Maria O'Phelan, a vice president at Minnesota Life Insurance, has worked a flex schedule — 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. — three days out of five so she can spend time with her three boys. But that hasn't slowed her career track. She's been promoted three times in that period. One reason is her willingness to toss her schedule aside at times, making arrangements for someone else to pick up her kids at school when she needs to work on a critical proposal. And by making herself accessible while out of the office (she recently ducked out of a school open house to take a call), she's sent a message that her schedule won't mean more work for others. "If you want flex time, you have to be flexible," she says.