Work Life Balance Issues Critical to PR Agencies
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Work Life Balance Issues Critical to PR Agencies

While most firms discuss the difficulties of attracting and retaining good people in general terms, few have focused on one of the specific challenges—it’s failure to adequately balance the work and family needs of female employees.

Paul Holmes

People issues are at the top of the agenda for almost every major public relations agency these days. But while most firms discuss the difficulties of attracting and retaining good people in general terms, few have focused on one of the specific challenges that faces the PR industry—it’s failure to adequately balance the work and family needs of female employees.
The vast majority of agencies have significantly more female than male employee at the junior levels—in many firms the ratio is as high as ten-to-one—yet at the same agencies men continue to occupy the vast majority of senior management positions, heading practice groups and managing offices.
Unless we believe that men are just inherently better at public relations than women, and therefore rise to the top through a process of natural selection, this is an issue that the industry should address. It may not be possible to accommodate every female employee—many will still make the quite legitimate choice to become full-time mothers and CEOs of their own households—but more and more agencies are coming to the conclusion that they can do better.
Burson-Marsteller, for example, recently introduced a wide range of benefits for employees, including emergency child and elder care, help with adoption, and enhanced family medical leave; discounts on health club memberships and museum admissions; and home/work initiatives including flex-time, and telecommuting.
But few agencies have gone as far as Silicon Valley technology specialist The Benjamin Group, which this week was named to Working Mother magazine’s list of the 100 Best Companies in America for Working Mothers for the second consecutive year. Founder and principal Sheri Benjamin has placed a high priority on balancing work and family needs since the day her agency opened its doors, and believes her commitment has paid off handsomely in terms of the firm’s ability to attract and retain the best people.
The Benjamin Group is the smallest business of any kind in California to offer licensed on-site childcare, which it has done since it had just 20 employees. The agency’s child care facility, now that Benjamin has about 80 people, supports 21 children, “from zero to six,” says Benjamin, and includes a recently expanded infant care facility. It is also one of only three woman-owned businesses on the Working Mother list.
“We are a testament that other small businesses can do this too,” says Benjamin. “There really are no excuses for small businesses not to implement family-friendly programs to assure that their employees maintain balanced lives. It does require employees to be more responsible, to make their own decisions, to plan their lives, but we have never experienced a downside.”
Like an increasing number of companies, The Benjamin Group offers flexible work hours to its employees, through what its president describes as “an extreme flex policy. We tell people, work with your managers and other members of your team to do whatever you need to do for the client, but if you have to leave at two o’clock to see your kid’s soccer match, do it. I’m going to be much more unhappy if you miss that game because you didn’t plan in advance.”
The agency also offers a Keep Smart program, which pays the costs of any continued learning activities in which employees may participate, and a Keep Fit program that reimburses for health club memberships, but only if they attend the health club at least twice a week. The agency even offers by-the-mile incentives for people who walk or run.
Benjamin says the agency’s reputation for offering these options to employees is a key factor in its ability to attract and retain good people. “It’s not just mothers,” she says. “We had a young guy join us six months ago. He’s single. He’s not using the child care facilities. But just the fact that we had these kinds of policies was one of the things that attracted him to our agency.”
This approach may be even more important in the future, says Benjamin, because members of the so-called Generation X are demanding that employers find ways to balance work and personal life. “They love it,” Benjamin says. “They appreciate the fact that we treat them like adults, that we treat them like human beings.”
If Working Mother’s survey is any guide, public relations firms will need to develop more progressive work-family programs just to keep pace with their clients. The magazine says that managers at Texas Instruments and other major companies are being trained to incorporate family-friendly policies into their decision making.
At DuPont and many other large companies, managers are evaluated on whether they support work-life goals, and some departmental managers must take a mandatory course on using flexibility as a business tool. Drugmaker Hoffmann-La Roche, meanwhile, holds managers accountable for ensuring that the women progress through the company ranks.
The magazine does not rank the Top 100, but lists 10 companies as exceptionally progressive. They were Citicorp/Citibank; Glaxo Wellcome; IBM; Johnson & Johnson; Eli Lilly; MBNA America; Merck & Co.; NationsBank; SAS Institute and Xerox.
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