I worked at my former company for 20 years. When I left, I had accumulated almost 500 hours of unused vacation time. During my tenure, taking time off was seen as a lack of dedication and commitment. Whenever someone wanted to schedule a vacation, there were always snide remarks and reasons why it wasn’t a good time.
I worked for a construction company and our success depended on completing projects on time and on budget. We were constantly under pressure and problems arose daily. We often worked 12 hour days for weeks on end. Finding a window to plan time off was challenging to say the least.
Admitting that you needed time to rest and recuperate was also seen as a sign of weakness in our testosterone fueled culture. One of the guys’ favorite quotes was “If our jobs were easy, then our wives would be out here doing them.”
Imagine the criticism I received when I recommended paternity leave plan to our executives.
As part of my executive development, I was tasked with developing a plan to remedy the company’s retention problem. We had a turnover rate of over 50% and we needed to stop the hemorrhaging. I spent six months researching the best companies in the world and a developing some solutions that we could replicate including a paternity leave plan that included one week of paid leave and one week of unpaid leave.
When I presented my findings to our executives, they were pleased with the ideas and debated the merits of each one; however, the paternity leave idea received no debate. It was immediately discarded. But I wouldn’t let it die without a fight. I argued that we offered paternity leave benefits to our colleagues in our European offices.
“Sure we do,” chimed in one HR executive. “But few guys actually use it.”
That’s when I realized how difficult it is for people to accept men as equal parents and caregivers.
Shortly after my failed crusade, I prepared for the birth of my son. He was born via C-section and I was able to plan my vacation in advance. When I handed my vacation request to my boss, he looked at it and said, “I never took off when my kids were born and they turned out fine.”
“I’m glad to hear that, sir,” I said.
“What in the hell are you going to do?” He asked. “Your wife doesn’t need your help.”
“She wants me to be there with her,” I said.
“Make sure to keep your Blackberry on,” he said as he reluctantly signed my form and slid it across his desk.
I spent the entire week taking calls, answering e-mail messages, and working on projects. My boss actually called me while I was in the delivery room to ask a question about work. It was as if I were simply working from home instead of bonding with my newborn son. I was frustrated with their lack of consideration and so was wife.
Many of my co-workers felt the same frustration. They wished they could spend more time with their families, but they rarely asked for vacation, paternity leave, or any other time-off because they feared the ridicule and repercussions. The guys who worked the longest hours and spent the most time in the office were the ones who were rewarded with promotions, interesting assignments, and raises.
Obviously, many companies need to change their internal cultures to reflect the prevailing societal norms. Gender roles continue to evolve and more men are placing a greater emphasis on family. We may never achieve the perfect work/life balance, but companies have to give their employees the time away from work to be actively involved moms and dads. Our future depends on it.
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