Policies and Procedure
HR Professional

By Cathy Gallagher-Louisy

 

Offering help and accommodation enables top performance

Darren and Mary are both parents of children with special needs. Darren works for the professional services firm KPMG in Canada. Mary – not her real name – also worked for a global firm, “XYZ Company”. They faced very similar struggles as working parents, but the impact of those struggles on their professional lives has been quite different. In fact, Darren Spreadbury has recently been promoted to partner at KPMG in Canada, while Mary has recently left XYZ Company after more than 11 years to start her own business.

 

Mary was an experienced project manager who always exceeded expectations on her performance reviews. After working for XYZ Company for over two years, she got pregnant. During her maternity leave, Mary’s daughter Tanya was diagnosed with a neurological disorder. Tanya now uses a wheelchair as well as assistive devices for communicating.

 

“At first, it was rather overwhelming,” said Mary. “Being a new parent is challenging for anyone, but then you’re also faced with the daunting situation of having a child that has needs you don’t yet understand.”

 

XYZ Company had no supports for parents of special needs children, nor any formal policies for flexible work. Thankfully, Mary’s manager recognized that Mary could perform her job well from anywhere – except when the job involved in-person meetings – so Mary was allowed to work from home two days a week and take her daughter to therapy on Friday afternoons.

 

This arrangement worked well for several years. Mary continued to perform her job exceptionally well, and always received excellent performance reviews. Then her manager left the company and things started to change. The new manager was not fond of telework and insisted that Mary come into the office every day. She tried to discuss the situation, but the manager was uncompromising. So, Mary discussed the issue with HR. Eventually, they agreed to let her work from home on Fridays so that Mary could take Tanya to therapy, but they asked her not to tell other employees about her arrangement.

 

Given the circumstances, Mary would have had grounds for an accommodation request and potentially a human rights complaint based on family status. However, she did not want to pursue that route and compromise her relationships at work. For over a year, she tried hard to make it work, but eventually had to admit that the situation was greatly impacting her ability to perform at her job and care for her daughter.

 

“Ironically, I would spend less time actually working because of the additional four hours I had to spend commuting,” she said. “I felt guilty when I might not have time to help Tanya with her homework or read to her after making dinner, bathing her and handling all the other things that needed to be done at home.”

 

Mary finally decided to leave the company to start her own business doing exactly the kind of work she was doing for XYZ Company. Now she works from home every day, except when she has an in-person client meeting. She has more flexibility, and feels like she has more balance in her life.

 

“The situation could have been so much different,” she said. “There need to be standards and expectations for flexible work arrangements. I was not the only employee at XYZ Company that needed flexibility.”

In the end, XYZ Company lost a high performing, 11-year veteran, along with all of her institutional knowledge and relationships.

 

Thriving in a supportive environment

Spreadbury works with the Global Mobility Services Group at KPMG in Canada. He’s also the father of two boys with autism, and at KPMG he found a very supportive environment.

 

The company has a number of innovative programs and policies in place that can provide support to parents of special needs children. For example, Personal Care Time: 50 hours of paid time off annually, over and above vacation and sick time, to use for personal, family or community commitments. KPMG also has several flexible work options that are available to all employees.

 

“The most commonly used is our Flexible Work Arrangements program, typically used for working from home or telecommuting,” said Elizabeth Reynolds, manager, Diversity and Inclusion at KPMG in Canada. “We also have other options like reduced work week or condensed work week.”

 

Additionally, KPMG has developed a number of guidelines and resources to help employees and their performance managers to successfully choose the appropriate flexible work arrangement.

 

“The performance manager’s role is to be an active partner,” said Reynolds. “With the guidelines and toolkits we have available, the majority of these arrangements are worked out between the employee and their manager. If either the employee or their performance manager need support, they can contact KPMG’s Employee Relations Service Team to help them choose the appropriate flexible work arrangement.”

 

In addition to Flexible Work Arrangements, KPMG has two innovative approaches that specifically support working parents of children with special needs. First, in 2009, they added questions to their annual employee demographic census to determine if their employees had dependent care responsibilities for children, special needs children or aging parents. This allowed them to design relevant programs and resources. Second, in January 2010, they established an employee resource group for parents of special needs children.

 

“When we first launched the Special Parents Network, we didn’t really know how valuable it would be,” said Reynolds. “But now, it is one of our most active and thriving employee resource groups, nationally.”

 

The network is comprised of employees from across Canada who have a monthly call with a guest speaker. For example, they recently had an internal speaker discuss setting up a trust for your child, and they had an external guest speaker who discussed how to advocate for your child at his or her school.

 

Spreadbury has been the chair of the Special Parents Network since Oct. 2013. He says the network is open and includes everyone from senior partners to first-year junior associates. Part of the value of the network is sharing experiences and lessons learned.

 

“For example, people in the network will share where they went on vacation with their child, what accommodations they requested and received, what worked and what didn’t,” he said. “You get practical advice and learn from each other.”

 

The Special Parents Network and the supports that the company has made a big difference in Spreadybury’s life.

 

“Every employee has to balance work and life,” he said. “The beauty of a company providing flexibility and support for parents like me is you don’t feel like you have to break new ground at work. There’s a policy and a process in place. So, I’m able to be very open about it and know that it’s not going to be held against me or affect me adversely at work. That alleviates a lot of worries I would otherwise have to deal with.”

 

These stories show the impact that flex policies and resources could have in enhancing performance and engagement.