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The Flexibility Without Shame Conversation

Sallie Krawcheck on January 18, 2017 09:15 AM

Sallie Krawcheck says flexibility without shame is the future of corporate cultureI worked up until the very end of my pregnancy: I actually spoke to clients from the delivery room. I started back at work two weeks after my daughter was born. I made my husband throw away the picture—and the nega­tive (remember how photographs used to have negatives?)—of me nursing my daughter while working on my computer in the month after she was born. Do I wish I’d had other options to consider? Do I wish I’d had the courageous conversation about flexibility? I think you know the answer to that. And here’s what I also wish: that you’ll learn from my mistake and have the conversation that I didn’t.

Among the key “courageous conversations” I believe we need to own in the workplace is one about flexibility. Real flexibility. Flexibility without shame. That means that if the HR handbook promises six weeks of maternity leave, we aren’t intimated or “side-eyed” out of actually taking it. Meaning that if we have to or want to go part-time for a bit to take care of family, our com­mitment to the company won’t be questioned and our promotion prospects won’t be diminished.

I’m talking here about flexibility that recognizes that employ­ees are real people, real people with real lives, and not some 1950s stereotype of what an ideal worker should be. I also believe that we need to internalize the truth of the matter: that being real peo­ple makes us great employees, not the opposite.

Recent research from KPMG, commissioned by Vodaphone, says sixteen weeks of paid parental leave could actually save big companies $19 billion a year. That’s right, save. It does this primarily by saving them the cost of finding and hiring employees to take the jobs of those who leave after having a baby.

That’s a wow.

It’s because by providing mothers with time to spend with their children in those early days, they enable those mothers to come back to work with confidence. As a result, the women stay in the workforce longer, and are more engaged, effective, and productive. And so they are less likely to quit. And that means the companies are less likely to have to replace them (and spend the 200 percent of an employee’s annual salary that it costs to replace them).

Of course, there is a cost to these programs, but it is more than offset by the benefit, which is that parents are more likely to return after such a leave . . . and be more productive at work when they are there . . . and continue contributing to the company for years to come. This means they will also contribute to their 401(k) s and to Social Security, which is good for them, and good for the economy overall.

This isn’t a hypothesis: we have real-life examples that prove it. California enacted a paid-family-leave policy in 2004 that enables working Californians to receive 55 percent of their salary (up to $1,104) for a maximum of six weeks. In a study of 253 employers on the effect of the policy, more than 90 percent reported either a positive or a neutral effect on profitability, turnover, and morale, according to a study by the Council of Economic Advisers.

And we should note that this doesn’t just help companies re­tain good talent today; it also helps attract the best talent in the future. Indeed, the up-and-coming Millennials are increasingly looking to flexibility as one of the key features of a company in which they would want to work: half of the most recent group of male MBAs say they plan to prioritize nonwork commitments over career progression.

And the good news keeps piling up. Studies have shown that companies that put these types of family-friendly policies in place have stock prices that perform better in the markets . . . not over time, but the minute they announce these policies.

Even if there weren’t such a direct cause-and-effect, let me ask you this: At which type of company would you rather work? At a company that makes a big deal about its flexible culture, but then tells its employees to “hurry back” from a brain scan, or at a com­pany that provides true flexibility? Which type of company do you think is going to attract the best talent? Which type of company do you think is going to be more successful in the long run? And which type of company would you like to buy from, or invest in?

I thought so.

The reasons for staying with a 1980s work culture are crum­bling. Remember, we women hold more cards than ever. That means we have the power to invite our companies to join the twenty-first century when it comes to these issues. Because al­lowing flexibility without shame isn’t just good business, it’s the future.

That’s why the time is ripe for a courageous conversation around this. We need to bring forward a conversation in the work­place about how flexibility without shame is good for all of us: for our companies, our shareholders, our work colleagues, our fami­lies, ourselves.

This post was adapted from OWN IT: The Power of Women at Work Copyright © 2017 by Sallie Krawcheck. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Buy the book here. 

Krawcheck is the cofounder and CEO of Ellevest, an innovative digital investment platform for women whose mission is to close the “gender investing gap.” She is also chair of Ellevate Network, a global professional women’s network whose mission is to advance women in business. She is one of the highest ranked women ever to have worked on Wall Street, having held posts such as CEO of Smith Barney, CEO of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and CFO of Citigroup and was a top-ranked research analyst. In her first book, OWN IT, Krawcheck invites readers to throw out stale definitions of what success looks like and embrace the qualities that make them amazing collaborators, extraordinary leaders, and invaluable assets to their companies. 

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