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Is kindness killing the career chances of working parents?

We work with a lot of managers helping them with how to best support the working parents in their team. This involves the pre and during leave stages where there are a lot of practical elements that need to be organised, but importantly we also look at the post leave stage and how a manager’s ongoing support is critical to the successful return and ultimate progression of the working parents in their team.

The overwhelming majority of managers we work with are well-intentioned and want to proactively support the parents in their team. However, what we do see is that often a manager’s assumptions about what a new parent will want from their career, influenced of course by their own experience or unconscious bias about managing work and parenting, can be counter-productive for the new parent. This is particularly true if the parent has a flexible or part-time working pattern.

In the desire to be accommodating and helpful, managers look at how to ease the burden on a newly returned parent. One obvious way this manifests itself is to assume that a new parent won’t want a demanding or high-profile piece of work or project when they return. Often this is regardless of the working style and ability of the person before they became a parent.  From a manager’s perspective, they are shielding the new parent from a potentially demanding workload, but this assumption has several implications and possible repercussions.

  • Much of the hard part of returning to work is getting there at all – the myriad of logistical, financial and emotional hoops that parents jump through to facilitate coming to work mean it is not a decision taken lightly. For many parents, this Herculean effort is only worthwhile if, when they get to work it is interesting, stimulating and ultimately rewarding. Therefore, by shielding parents from high-profile work, a manager is potentially making the effort it has taken to get there in the first place seem somewhat futile.
  • For many parents, work is a way of reconnecting with an important part of their identity and they may relish the chance to be their ‘old-self’ during the working day, immersed in a world away from nappies and nursery rhymes. By removing work that is perceived to be too demanding (but ultimately more rewarding), a manager could well be contributing to the identity loss that many parents feel.
  • At worst, if a manager unilaterally decides to ‘shield’ a new parent from demanding work it can be perceived by the parent that their manager has lost faith in their ability. Many parents experience a loss of confidence when they return to work and this is likely to exacerbate if the signal they receive from their manager is that they are somehow no longer ‘up to the job’. However well-intentioned, the result can reinforce any self-doubt the parent may have already been feeling.
  • The assumption that someone working flexibly won’t want a high-profile project reinforces the belief that there is only one version of success. Confusing presenteeism with ambition or ability removes the opportunity to create role models who are working in different ways and ultimately undermines efforts to increase diversity throughout an organisation.
  • Higher profile projects help with exposure and success in one project tends to lead to other opportunities and ultimately chances of career progression. Therefore, by reducing the exposure a new parent can gain (on top of what might be a lengthy period of absence), a manager may be creating a negative cycle that damages the self-belief and career progression chances of the parents in their team.

As mentioned, rarely do we meet a manager who is openly hostile to having working parents in their team, but the ‘killing with kindness’ tendency is something we do encounter.  Our advice is for managers to set aside their own assumptions and actively discuss with an individual their preferences. For some parents a return to work is overwhelming and they need a period of adjustment but for many others, work provides a vital part of their identity and becoming a parent can kickstart a real drive to succeed.

As the nature of work changes, perhaps the greatest kindness a manager can show their team is championing many different versions of success and demonstrating through their actions the vital role they play in ensuring that becoming a parent is not a barrier to progress.

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