Why Following This Professional 'Rule' is Getting in the Way of Workplace Happiness

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By Rachel Sugar

If you follow a certain line of conventional wisdom, you won't mention your husband to your coworkers, and if you leave early to pick up your kid, or your parent, or your grandfather, you'll keep that information discreetly to yourself.

You're a professional, the thinking goes — don't do anything to jeopardize that. Especially if you're female.

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The fear makes sense: women — particularly women of child-bearing age — are still up against assumptions that they'll ultimately choose their families over their careers. "We'd love to offer her this opportunity, but she probably wants to spend time with her kids, so..." And why offer her a promotion, when she'll probably have a baby and leave?The tides may be turning — the execution of family-oriented policies may need significant work, but the rise of family-oriented perks, more reasonable parental leave policies, and increasing recognition of the benefits of flexible work schedules, suggest that at least there's an interest in changing things.

But things haven't necessarily changed yet, and they haven't necessarily changed everywhere, and accordingly, it's hardly unreasonable to assume that the best way to keep up professional appearances is to separate work and family as much as possible. If you're going to have the audacity to have family obligations, you can at least have the courtesy to pretend you don't.

That impulse is understandable. But Salli Setta, president of Red Lobster, says it's not benefiting anybody — and it's up to corporate leaders to change it.

To her, there's nothing taboo about discussing family at work.

Employees shouldn't have to hide their non-work relationships, and by maintaining the illusion that people don't have lives and priorities outside the office, we're reinforcing a system that's already broken.

Through one lens, it's a gender equality issue: while stay-at-home dads are on the rise, the general (outdated, but general) default assumption is that women will end up doing the bulk of the caretaking, whether or not they're working outside the home.

That means that in the office, women — and particularly (though not exclusively) mothers — end up in the awkward position of having their colleagues make assumptions about their priorities. Those assumptions can be well-intentioned, but research has repeatedly shown they hurt women's career prospects.

Those same assumptions are not made of working dads, though. A 2014 study by Citi and LinkedIn reported that 78% of women had never heard of a "successful man talk about the importance of striking a balance between work and family life."

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It's not that men don't have partners and children; it's that they're not talking about them. Or more accurately, they're not talking about them in mixed company. Too often, the challenges of navigating work and life are branded a "women's issue," but the same survey suggested that finding "the right balance between work and family life" is a top priority for both men and women.

Open conversations about family life foster a more equitable work culture. If everybody is allowed to publicly have a life and identity outside of work, then the assumptions about who wants what start to dissipate — in both directions.

"If I talk about my children," Setta observes, "other people will talk about their children. I've had men who would never talk about their kids, and when I start talking about mine, they start talking about theirs."

"It allows men to feel a little bit freer," she continues. "It allows them to think, well, maybe I will coach that little league team I wasn't going to coach."

The more that men talk about their extracurricular identities, the more that "work/life" stops being a female problem.

Already, men are slipping out of work to attend to the rest of their lives. According to a recent study from Boston University, they're just better at hiding it — at least in part, presumably, because they have bias on their side. The default expectation isn't that the guy in the well-tailored suit hasn't responded to your VRY IMPT email because he's secretly sitting at his kid's middle school production of "The Music Man."

For talk to truly start to level the playing field, though, the conversational shift has to apply to everyone: mothers and fathers, but also married people without children, people caring for parents and siblings, partnered people, single people, and people who are really, really into their amateur soccer leagues (or any combinations thereof).

Slate's Amanda Marcotte has pointed out that family-friendly policies too often end up punishing people who don't have kids. You don't have to go home and feed your six-year-old; why don't you stay late? What's it to you?

"That's not fair, that's people making an assumption," Setta agrees.

Part of getting it is peeling away those assumptions — and the one of the easiest ways to do that is to be open about the reality.

Talking about your kid or your girlfriend or your pottery class is probably not going to close the wage-gap, shatter the glass ceiling, and resolve gender inequality in the American office. Nor is it a particularly safe move for people who aren't yet at the top — as is so often the case, challenging norms is easier when you have power than when you don't.

Obviously, there's a time and a place for everything, and everyone is entitled to boundaries — both in what they choose to reveal, and in what they're required to listen to. But for the cost (nothing), the potential for payoff is huge, and it's up to leaders to nudge progress forward, one casual mention at a time.
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