‘Is it OK for single parents leave work earlier than others?’

Welcome to The Dilemma, where psychologist Jacqui Manning offers advice on your ethical questions and moral dilemmas. This week she talks about special privileges for staff with kids.

Question: I own a small business and have six employees who are all great. I try to be as flexible as I can with my staff and accommodate their requests for early finishes and WFH days – I understand this is key to keeping employees happy.

However, one member of staff keeps asking for special treatment and I’m starting to feel conflicted about whether I can keep giving her it.

For context, she’s a solo mum-of-three who has her kids most of the time. She already starts 30 minutes later than everyone else and has now asked if she can finish early every day to pick her kids up, then catch up on her work later that night.

The thing is, I need some people in the office until 5.30pm every day as clients expect to be able to contact us, so I can’t offer this privilege to anyone else.

Is it OK to give some staff special treatment and not others? I feel as though staff without kids are taking on more of the workload and they are starting to notice and get annoyed.

‘Do you have kids?’

Answer: I’m going to ask you a controversial question here: do you have kids? And if you do, are you the primary caregiver? I’m guessing the answer to one of those questions will be no, because otherwise you’d have a greater depth of understanding to your situation at hand, tricky as it is.

Having children is one of those things that you cannot adequately prepare for by reading or observing others, not the highs nor the lows, nor what’s actually involved. Before we have kids we walk around smugly thinking “when I’m a mum I’d never do that” or “when I’m a dad my child would never behave like that” and then bam, kids come into your world and all bets are off.

Being utterly responsible for keeping tiny vulnerable humans alive and well is an overwhelming task at times for two parents, but when you take one of those parents (mostly) out of the equation and multiply the responsibility by three, then that’s a Mount Everest of overwhelm right there.

I understand you have a dilemma though and don’t want to be resented by your other employees. It’s not your fault – nor your champion solo-Mum employee’s fault – that we live in a way that is so counter-productive to our biology when it comes to raising kids – i.e. we live in individualised silos rather than a village like we were meant to.

People often feel like they’re going nuts raising kids and doing the whole juggle but it’s not them that’s nuts, it’s our modern society not acknowledging in a meaningful way that it takes many hands and lots of support to raise kids, and at the moment your Solo Mum only has two hands for three kids and not much support so she’s feeling the strain. Your other staff are too, because they weren’t the ones who made the choice to have three kids and so they’re watching her to see what “privileges” she gets, and you’re feeling the strain because you’re trying to keep everyone happy.

But here’s the thing, her “privileges” aren’t privileges at all. She’s not scooting off work early to go and get her nails done, she’s going to collect her kids that she’s almost solely responsible for and start her other full-time job at home which is being their mum/taxi driver/cook/counsellor/cleaner/tutor/emotional rock.

She’s not arriving 30 minutes later than everyone else because she’s had a nice lie-in and a cup of tea in bed. She’s already done a full day’s work by the time she gets to the office after she’s mustered the kids to eat breakfast, get dressed, brush their teeth, pack their bags and made their lunches. Mornings are a special kind of chaos in a house with young kids ….

And she’s not expecting to clock off early, she’s just asking to do her work from home which has become a cultural shift now anyway since the pandemic, kids or no kids.

Don’t make her stay in the office just for appearances sake or to attempt the impossible – keeping everyone happy.

Perhaps you could ask her for one day a week if you really feel like you need her there (or divert your phone to her mobile phone), but remember her kids aren’t going to be this tiny and dependent forever so her availability over time will change, but right now she needs to be there for them and you know what will last forever? Her loyalty to you as her employer if you understand that.

Jacqui Manning is The Friendly Psychologist.

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