The recognition by employers that workers belong to families and that these families bring their own demands has resulted in an increasing number of ‘family-friendly workplaces’, according to a new discussion paper from the Sex Discrimination Unit.

But just what does a carer-friendly workplace look like, why should employers support it, and what is driving this change in support for workers with families? This article attempts to answer these questions.

This article is an excerpt, reproduced with permission, from the ‘Striking the Balance: Women, Men, Work and Family’ discussion paper. Working carers of people who are ill, frail, have a disability or are ageing are invited to make submissions in response to the paper. A final report will be then be prepared by the Sex Discrimination Unit.

What is a family-friendly employer?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines a family-friendly employer as one that recognises the family responsibilities of employees and accepts that such responsibilities can have an impact on employees’ working lives. A family-friendly organisation will try to help employees to reconcile paid work and family responsibilities and to make them feel supported in balancing their paid work and outside work commitments. Being family-friendly is more than having a set of practices recorded in the organisation’s rules and regulations: a commitment to these practices and a work culture supporting the values of work-life balance and encouraging the use of the practices is critical when successfully putting family-friendly policies into practice.

Recognition by business that workers belong to families and that these families bring their own demands has resulted in an increasing number of “family-friendly workplaces” as more organisations provide flexible work arrangements.

The term “family-friendly” can also meet some resistance from employees without current family responsibilities, and some organisations have broadened their policies to encompass work and life responsibilities, recognising that all workers have responsibilities and interests outside the workplace.

Paid work and family balance: the business case

Businesses are increasingly recognising that it makes good business sense to adopt Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) programs. The provision of flexible work arrangements that permit employees to integrate their personal lives with their work lives has numerous benefits for both employee and employer. Employees who have access to flexible arrangements are likely to experience increases in morale, loyalty to the organisation and job satisfaction, in turn increasing productivity. For employers, the opportunity to develop and enhance the workplace culture will result in savings through lower staff turnover and absenteeism and higher profits through increased staff productivity.

The Commonwealth Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) has identified the following “business case” arguments.

  • Attraction and retention of the best talent. The costs associated with recruitment and staff turnover are considerable and include advertising costs, administration costs, time spent training, termination pay, loss of corporate and specialist knowledge and the possibility of low staff morale and reduced productivity.
  • Productivity and innovation. The diverse set of skills and experiences employees bring to their work, if harnessed, can lead to increased innovation and hence increased productivity.
  • Enhancement of a company’s management style. Increasingly a mix of female and male management styles are desired for the value and diversity of methods they bring to the workplace.
  • Attraction of more female customers. Women make up over 50 per cent of Australia’s population and, notably, Australian women are responsible for spending 90 cents in every household dollar. With this kind of buying power it is in business’ best interest to keep women both as employees and customers.
  • Reduction of company risk. By considering reasonable requests and attempting to accommodate the needs of employees with caring responsibilities, employers are protecting themselves from possible legal action.

In addition, companies are increasingly recognising their role in society as being greater than the return to shareholders and company profits. The recent growth in “triple bottom line” reporting and the demand for socially responsible corporate behaviour has highlighted the role organisations play in contributing to social cohesion.

Drivers for change

While workplace policies and practices, and enlightened EEO and human resources practitioners work to produce institutional and attitudinal change, it is workplace culture that is the real driver for change.

A study for the federal Department of Family and Community Services highlighted that policies and programs cannot be successful unless they change the culture of organisations. Cultural change is particularly important to prevent family-friendly policies reinforcing gender stereotypes. The study found that factors important in promoting the necessary organisational change are:
  • leadership
  • integration of work/family issues with business strategies and corporate policies
  • addressing barriers to change (especially traditional assumptions about gender roles and accepting that men want balance as well as women)
  • emphasis on research
  • employee involvement
  • including the full range of issues affecting work/family balance.

A recent study of Australian organisations from Informit RMIT Publishing identified a number of key drivers for the implementation of EEO/Diversity Action.

  • A business case for attraction/retention
  • The right thing to do, for both social justice and corporate citizenship reasons. The social justice case involved organisations responding to perceived community standards and expectations. The corporate citizenship case is based on a rationale of enhancing the reputation and stature of the organisation in the public sphere for a number of reasons including improving the stock price and recruitment opportunity
  • Organisational commitment/cohesion
  • Legislative compliance
  • Industrial negotiations/employee pressure. This encompassed both union and employee pressure as well as the proactive rationale of containment of union influence
  • Personal leadership/commitment.

Significantly, research has found that the most frequent use of the business case argument applied to organisations where retention and attraction of employees had been identified as an issue. In most instances the issue of retention and attraction formed part of a broader business case rationale, less concerned with immediate cost savings than with the medium to long term interests of the organisation.

This study also identified a number of internal and external factors that propel organisations to take action around EEO and diversity in a specific way or at a specific time. Internal factors include organisational values and culture, work and workforce organisation, organisational change and industrial or workplace relations systems. External factors on the other hand might include industry or global demands and pressures, legislative requirements, government policy and perceptions of social and community responsibility. Legislation is a big driver of change in countries such as the United Kingdom, which recently legislated the right to request part time work following the birth of a child, a “light touch regulation” which places a legal obligation on employers to consider a request for part time work.

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To look at the ‘Striking the Balance’ discussion paper in full, and for information about submissions due on September 30, 2005, go to the website at