4 Ways To Make It Safe For Dads To Talk About Family At Work (part 1 of a series)

Many workplaces are not open to men discussing family while at work. Here are a few things we all can do to help slowly change our workplace cultures so that fathers can feel more secure in discussing, addressing and even accommodating family demands at work.

You don't have to be in a mediocre sit-com to support your fellow male coworkers who also struggle with work-family challenges.

You don’t have to be in a mediocre sit-com to support your fellow male coworkers who also struggle with work-family challenges.

All Apologies

I apologize. Most of my advice so far has been to help dads navigate work-family issues as if our workplaces are intolerant of family concerns and that workplaces can never change. I’ve recommended that we keep relatively quiet about discussing family in the workplace, and to negotiate for telework justifying it solely with a business case.

To some degree, this was good advice. Many workplaces are not open to discussion of family, and work schedules and demands are still structured around an “all-in single-breadwinner with at-home spouse” approach that is a relic of another time.

But employers will never change if dads assume that employer hostility towards family demands are set in stone, and that dads must only resort to working through holes in the system, through informal arrangements or “invisible” accommodations.

Waiting on the World to Change

You know what? I’m tired of waiting (waiting) waiting on the (work)world to change. If my generation of busy involved dads don’t start making change happen, company cultures will remain unchallenged, and more and more dads will have to struggle seemingly alone. Change is possible, and there are some prominent examples of workplace cultures that are supportive of work-family.

So how can we start making changes? I’m glad you asked. I have a few ideas…

Be the Change You Wish to See

These actions require courage, and some degree of respect and security at your workplace. You may encounter some short-term pushback. But, you might not. Sometimes by assuming the worst, we contribute to building our barriers ourselves.

If you have the security, flexibility, courage and inclination (I recognize some may have more ability to do this at work than others), here are 4 things we can do in our workplaces to make it easier for dads to discuss and address work-family demands at our workplaces.

  1. Talk about your family & ask other men about theirs

  2. Make sure other men in your workplace see you occasionally use work flexibility for family reasons

  3. Take paternity leave

  4. Start a Beer Fire! (or a group of male coworkers to discuss life outside of work)

1. Talk About Your Family & Ask About Theirs

Most employers are somewhat tolerant of moms discussing family while at work. Women tend to talk about their families more than men. Women face many workplace hurdles, but considering that family demands are a large part of women’s proscribed gender role, women do generally have more leeway than men in terms of raising family issues at work.

Men tend not to discuss family issues as readily, especially in the workplace. You can start changing this at your workplace and among those you can influence. It is probably best to begin with subordinates and peers, and work your way up to discussing these matters with higher-ups. Here are some things we can do:

  • Keep pictures of your kids/family not just in a small frame facing you on the desk, but in a prominent place at your workstation (an 8×10 on the wall behind you may be ideal)
  • During “water cooler” chit-chat with other men, don’t just talk about the latest Tim Tebow gossip, tell them what you did with your kids last weekend, or discuss their little league games (or whatever)
  • Ask other men in your workplace about their non-work life, including their families. Encourage them to share their family activities- like what they did with the kids on their last vacation, etc.
  • If you can do this at the beginning of meetings you run, even better
  • If you are a supervisor and can generate these conversations with men who report to you, even even better better

When coworkers come to my office, they see lots of pics of me and Nick. I hope it signals to them that it’s ok to talk about family while at work.

Many dads struggle with work-family issues, but because they do not see other men talking about these issues, many feel like they struggle alone. The fact is we all struggle with work-family, and just knowing this fact helps.

The point here is to make it more normal for men in your workplace to discuss family issues, and to bring some of our non-work lives into workplace discussions. This small step lays the groundwork for building more supportive workplace cultures.

Tune in next time for Part 2:

Being Visible While Using Workplace Flexibility for Family Demands

What do you think about discussing family while at work? What has your experience been? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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14 Comments

  1. Crispin Garden-Webster

     /  July 3, 2013

    Scott I’m 100% sure everywhere I have ever worked as an employee, manager or consultant in the last 30 years has been full of conversations about family, kids, husbands, wives, challenges, funny stories, funerals, weddings, birthdays and what we did on the weekend etc.etc. Can you give any specific and if necessary sanitised examples of workplaces that discourage this kind of sharing. Seriously, most places you can’t shut people up talking about their families. I don’t believe the ‘many workplaces’ thing is accurate.

    Reply
    • First, thanks for reading and for your comment.
      I’d be very happy to be wrong on this one, but I’m not sure your experiences are universal.
      I had one friend who was forced to leave his son’s birthday party on a Sunday to “get his @ss back to the office”, and another who was told he’d never get promoted bc he was leaving consistently at 530 for family reasons.
      I know a divorced dad whose kids lived in London and he flew out every other weekend to see them- his job was threatened bc he wasn’t “sufficiently committed to the firm”.
      This stuff happens all the time, and is reflected in the Boston College survey data as well.
      In short, I’d be happy to be wrong, but for many, unfortunately, these problems persist.
      I’d love your thoughts on parts 2-4 over the next few weeks.

      Reply
  2. I’m a training instructor and teach new employee classes often. When I introduce myself to a new class I have a picture of me and my family on the power point projector. This helps new employees relax and I get to brag a bit about my kids. It’s a good ice breaker.

    Reply
    • That is fantastic! What a great way to be a role model and put others at ease. Thanks for sharing this (and of course for reading and commenting)

      Reply
  3. Really interesting post. I guess I’m in a lucky position to find it easy to talk about family after having become a father just over two months ago. A lot of it is probably due to luck and ending up ending up chatting about things like pregnancy, birth, parenting etc. with colleagues I know who are at a similar stage with kids. I can think of several occasions when I’ve agreed to meet for coffee or lunch with a colleague and we’ve ended up talking a lot about being dads without having purposefully decided to meet to chat about being dads.

    Reply
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