When I fought for 2 years to change the workplace policies at my job, one of the most frustrating responses I heard along the way from a colleague was, “We have it really good here. Why do you need to ask for more?”
By “really good”, my colleague meant that our employer had a variety of policies in place that might be considered generous. We had access to 20 days of paid vacation, 5 days of paid ‘personal’ time off, and 10 days of paid sick leave. We had employer-sponsored health insurance. Employees’ charitable contributions were matched 3 to 1. We had our lunch catered in the office daily, and we were given employer-sponsored subway travel cards. And the longer an employee stayed at the organization, the more “perks” they might be eligible for, including subsidized retirement plans and life insurance policies.
It’s true that we certainly had much better policies in place than most workers across the country. Comparatively speaking, by those measures we were better off than many. So to my colleague (and, it became clear, to my employer), the idea of asking for the option to work from home or work non-standard hours was asking for yet another accommodation, yet another benefit. How dare I expect such special treatment–didn’t I appreciate how good I already had it?
But this mindset is indicative of a dangerous perception of the employee/employer relationship that has come to define the workplace in the U.S., especially in times of economic recession. Employers feel entitled to treat their employees as though they are doing workers a favor by employing them. And workers have bought into the notion that they should feel lucky to be employed. Efforts by an employer to improve an employee’s life outside of the confines of the office are considered perks, by both employer and employee.
The reason this mindset is dangerous is not (just) because it hurts employees, but because it hurts employers.
In my case, all the so-called perks we had didn’t address my situation. I needed my employer to give me the ability to look after my disabled partner (who had broken his back after a 30-foot fall and had been put on bed-rest, unable to stand for more than 30 minutes a day) and do my job at the same time, by working from home. Because my employer was so fixated on the notion that I already had it good, they didn’t see they were cutting off their nose to spite their face. What they got from me was an on-site worker who was full of worry about whether the person she loved was healing properly without help in the house. I wanted to do a good job, and I was qualified to do a good job. But I couldn’t work to my potential given the circumstances. An easy way for my employer to maximize my performance would have been to allow—encourage, even—me to work from home. So while I suffered, my employer suffered too by paying full price for a sub-par employee.
Looking at my situation on its own, some might berate me for not working harder despite my personal circumstances. Shouldn’t I have done everything possible to ignore my anxieties and prioritize my job, where I had it so good?
I submit that would have been impossible; workers are human, not robots, and we can’t be expected to completely dissociate from our emotions, especially in circumstances of extreme distress. But perhaps more importantly, my story is not unique. When I met with my human resources representative to make my initial request to work from home, I was told I was the third person just that week to ask for the same thing (all denied). When employers ignore the needs of their employees, they miss the opportunity to make changes that would help make their employees better at their jobs. And that unwillingness to listen is often indicative of a larger cultural problem: employees are not trusted to make strong decisions about how to get their job done. No business can reach its potential without trusting its staff.
By falling back on traditional notions that paid leave and flexibility are perks, employers miss the point: these are productivity and motivational tools, not benefits. Investing in employees is the best strategy that employers have for success. Clearly, there are limits to this approach. So just like with any investment, organizations have to make judgment calls about which tools make the most sense for their staff and are going to get the best returns. But complacency in business is destructive; if you’re resting on your laurels then you’re not going to be competitive for long.
This complacency also does a great disservice to low-wage workers, who are significantly less likely to have access to any of these so-called perks. When workers who do have access to flexible schedules and paid leave think of them as benefits, they perpetuate the incorrect assumption that only certain people should be entitled to them. This assumption bolsters arguments being made by businesses at this very moment in New York City, who refuse to support a paid sick leave bill with the mistaken claim that it would be bad for business. Only 19% of low-wage workers have access to paid sick leave. These workers deserve better from their higher-wage counterparts, who should be speaking out about paid leave as a necessity, not a perk.
Employers and employees both should always be looking out for ways to improve the workplace. We should all be asking questions about what makes us productive and pursuing strategies that will make our economy stronger. “Having it good” simply isn’t good enough.