When Your Child-Care Needs Collide with Your Job
When Ellen B. applied for a job as a buyer at a major department store, she was asked the following questions on her job application:

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• Can you be available to work any hours?

• Are you willing to travel?

• Can you work overtime?

Wanting to be viewed as an eager and dedicated employee, Ellen immediately checked “Yes” to all the questions.

“I regret that to this day,” says Ellen, who was hired and then fired eight months later when she informed her supervisor that she would need to leave work by 6 p.m. each day to pick up her son. “Other employees were asked to work late into the evening and refused. They weren’t fired. They fired me because I’d told them I was available to work any hours on my job application.”

According to the department store, Ellen was not living up to the commitments she had made on her job application. They were right.

How does this apply to you? Many employees have child-care responsibilities that their employers are reluctant to tolerate. An employer cannot fire or discipline you solely because you have parental responsibilities, but can do so if you misrepresent your availability. Sometimes, if an employer gets fed up with a worker whose family responsibilities take him or her away from work, the employer might look to that employee’s job application or past performance reviews and ask, “Did this person inform us of these obligations prior to being hired or promoted?” If not, then you could be considered to be reneging on your part of the agreement.

1. How should you disclose your unavailability?
It’s important that you disclose your unavailability. When you do disclose it, however, try to do so in a positive, graceful way. For instance, in reply to the question, “Can you work the hours required by this position?” don’t respond with, “My children come first!” Instead try, “Yes, I will generally be available and willing to work. On Friday afternoons, however, I would like some notice if I’ll need to be here past
5 p.m.” In that case, you’ve put your employer on notice of your responsibilities, you have not made any promises you can’t keep, and yet you’ve indicated a willingness to work the schedule the company needs.

The next logical question is if you indicate that you are not available to work, why would an employer hire or promote you in the first place? The solution is to take a middle ground. Make sure you disclose any significant unavailability you might have, and don’t bother with the rest.

It’s also important that you understand that if your child-care responsibilities really are preventing you from doing your job, then your employer has a right to discipline or fire you. The only exception to this is if your child is seriously ill. In that case, you are allowed to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

-font-size: 10.0pt">Only two states, California and Minnesota, have specific laws that allow employees to take time off from work to participate in activities at their child’s school. The purpose of these laws is to make sure parents don’t miss out on school plays, teacher conferences, graduations and other supportive efforts in the classroom. Employees are required to give reasonable notice, and the employer may require the employee to use vacation time.

-font-size: 10.0pt">Many other states are considering passing similar laws. Congress has made several failed attempts to pass a national law that would allow parents unpaid leave for school events. If passed, it would be an amendment to the Family Medical Leave Act.

2. You don’t have to discuss your family with your employer.
Your responsibilities as a parent are none of your employer’s business unless those responsibilities prevent you from doing the job for which you were hired. When Janis M. applied for a promotion as a quality control chemist, her boss didn’t want to give her the position.

-font-size: 10.0pt">“He had decided that I was young and was probably going to get pregnant,” Janis recalls. “We went out to lunch and after he drank three martinis, he said, ‘This job requires a lot of travel and a lot of time away from your husband.’ Then he asked me whether I had children. I told him ‘No.’ Then I shared with him that I couldn’t have children. He said, ‘Oh wow, so it doesn’t matter if you’re gone traveling! So you’re not going to ever have children so you’ll never have the whole hospital thing?’ … In that light, this would be a good deal.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So then he said, ‘Well, OK. I think this would probably work.’”

-font-size: 10.0pt">“I was happy to get the promotion,” Janis adds, “but I thought, ‘What a jerk!’ A couple of years later, my husband and I adopted a child.”

Your employer has no legal right to inquire about:

-font-size: 10.0pt">• the number and ages of your children

-font-size: 10.0pt">• where they reside

-font-size: 10.0pt">• your provisions for child care

-font-size: 10.0pt">• your plans for pregnancy

-font-size: 10.0pt">• your means of birth control

• or any other personal facts about your family.

Your employer also has no right to inquire about your marital status. Some employers have stereotypical notions about how a person will perform on the job based upon their marital status. One common belief is that married women will be less flexible because of family responsibilities. By contrast, some employers believe that a married man will be more stable because he has the weight of family responsibility!

How do you respond if you are asked these types of questions? The solution is not necessarily to run straight to the nearest lawyer (although there may be times when that is recommended!). In most cases, you should consider the following when deciding how to respond:

• Was the inquiry indicative of the tone of the entire relationship? Or was it simply one question asked in ignorance?

• Did you get the impression that your answer to this question is something an employer will seriously consider in deciding whether to hire or promote you? Or do you think it was merely something said in passing that ultimately won’t affect your job status at all?

In other words, it will be up to you to exercise your best judgment. Each situation must be looked at individually in order to determine your response.

3.  Make sure your child-care responsibilities aren’t affecting your performance reviews.

Performance reviews are important indicators of your success on the job. It’s crucial, however, that you don’t allow your child-care responsibilities to adversely affect the reviews you get.

One woman was rated poorly year after year for her unwillingness to travel out of town. She had answered a standard question on her original job application stating that, as a single mother of three, she was not available to travel. Not once in the five years she had worked there, had her job ever required her to travel. Yet, each year at performance review time, her boss would go over her original application, apply a standard criteria, and ask whether she was willing to travel. Each time she said no and was marked down for it.

On at least one occasion, she was lectured about how she shouldn’t let her children interfere with her job. Other than that issue, she received excellent evaluations. In her case, the criticism was not valid, since travel was not a component of the job.

Check to see that you are being critiqued only in those areas that are necessary for effective job performance. Your evaluation must be focused on real aspects of your position, and not derived from some generalized criteria that do not fully apply to you.

Finally, make sure that your boss isn’t marking you down based upon a preconceived notion that you are less valuable in the workplace because you have parental responsibilities. In fact, you bring a wealth of experience to the workplace.

Think about it: You have been the CEO of your household, ultimately responsible for the smooth running of your “company.” In addition, you have often assumed other executive-like positions, such as money manager, investor, transportation coordinator, bid taker, food resource manager, chef, purchasing agent, social director, therapist and counselor, travel agent, project coordinator, file clerk, interior designer, and time management expert. And, if your boss doesn’t appreciate that, then maybe it’s time to find another job!

Visit our Work and Family pages for more on childcare and your career.


Patti Paniccia is a former CNN correspondent and a lawyer. She teaches “Gender and the Law” at
Pepperdine Law School in Malibu, Calif., and is the author of Work Smarts for Women: The Essential Sex Discrimination Survival Guide (Ballantine, 2000).