Leveling The Playing Field

Parents of high school kids know … it’s SAT and ACT season again.  Stress is on overdrive as everyone is striving for ways to improve scores – tutoring, prep classes, working through the huge practice books at home.  All eyes are focused on the thrill of receipt – opening the mail to find those glorious oversized packages with writing on the outside that says “You’re accepted” or “Welcome.”  Believe me, I’ve been there with my own child so understand it well.

I just read an article in The New York Times entitled, “It Takes A B.A. To Find A Job As A File Clerk” which focuses on an Atlanta law firm that requires every employee – including the in-house courier making $10/hour – to have a bachelor’s degree.  The firm’s managing partner said that this requirement shows that every employee has made “a commitment” to their future and not just a paycheck.  Sounds reasonable since college is really about honing skills needed in most every line of employment – organization, planning, meeting deadlines, self-discipline, flexibility, and teamwork.

But here’s the problem with requiring all employees to have a degree – there’s a big difference between equal and fair.  Equal means the same but fair means, well, fair.  Respecting and supporting individual differences and recognizing that not everyone fits into the same box.  It means understanding that a 5th Grade child with dyslexia reading from a 3rd Grade book and receiving an “A” on an assignment is fair even if others are reading from the 5th Grade text.  That a college student who requires extra time and a quiet room to complete an exam is fair even if others are taking the same in a lecture hall with 150 other students.  It’s about evaluating each person as an individual and on their own merits vs. expecting the same for all.  This “life lesson” begins in school and since school is about preparing children for life, shouldn’t the same principle apply to the workplace as well?

Expecting every employee to hold a B.A. in order to secure employment means that many bright, capable, and talented young people will be overlooked.   Believe me, I’m a huge proponent of college and helping all students receive their degree, yet not everyone can reach this milestone.  For some it’s financial.  For others it’s access.  No matter the reason, it’s unfair and unreasonable to assume that the reason a young person does not hold an undergraduate degree is because they don’t aspire for success or don’t want to invest in themselves.

There are many students with learning differences, Asperger’s Syndrome, or ADD – with amazing skills and who would be top performers in the workplace – who are unable to navigate the complexities of college.  Maybe they tried but it didn’t work.  Maybe they were told to not even consider college as an option.  Regardless of the reason, concluding that a young person without a B.A. is only focused on a paycheck is an arbitrary measure and one that places barriers where, in all likelihood, enormous barriers already exist.  And this includes even when, according to a recruiter referenced in the same article, 800 resumes are received for one job.

We all know people sans a college degree who have made contributions to every area of life – business, the arts, philanthropy, many achieving far more success (recognizing that success is subjective) than those with B.A.’s.  And this certainly includes many with learning or similar differences for whom their commitment to themselves is defined by the struggles they have endured and their “never give up” attitude to forge ahead.  College is wonderful, no doubt, yet self-respect and self-worth trumps it every time.  There’s a reason it’s called a playing field and not a playing box.  Fields are larger and allow for many to play.  Whether school, employment, or life, the larger the field the better.

Struggling Kids Become Adults … Then What?

Did you know that the costs to incarcerate someone is more than it is to educate them?  I’m sure this is the case in most states as would be the statistics that show that a fairly hefty percentage of the young adults and adults in prison have undiagnosed disabilities – learning, developmental, behavioral, emotional, mental.

This isn’t about scaring parents into thinking that their struggling children are heading to jail.  Rather, it’s about asking parents to look toward the horizon, where high school graduation, driving, college, employment, and independent living comes into play.  It’s about acknowledging that if your child is struggling today, they may well grow into a struggling adult.

No parent wants to know that their 4th Grader has dyslexia or their 9th Grader is bipolar.  No parent wants to think about how their 6th Grader is going to manage through the social challenges of middle school when their child has Asperger’s Syndrome or how their gifted 12th Grader with ADHD is going to handle the demands of college.  But here’s the reality – acknowledge and work to support it today, or know that the gaps grow wider and the consequences far more serious with each passing year.

Over the past few months, I’ve read actual posts from college students asking to pay others to write their college papers or take their online classes for them.  Nothing new as we’ve heard about this for some time.  And while I’ll readily admit that some may be lazy or just not interested in doing the work, others may have been struggling with reading, writing, or math for years.   This creates enormous pressure for the child which morphs into serious challenges for them as adults, and while they learn ways to “smoke and mirror” their deficits, eventually the smoke clears and the mirror cracks.

Ask any college administrator about the increasing numbers of freshman who are taking remedial classes – and more than one or two and often for multiple semesters – because they are woefully deficient in basic academic skills and this tells us plenty.  Ask any college health services department about the exploding numbers of students seeking mental health counseling and this tells us plenty.  And ask any manager about the numbers of Gen Y employees who cannot write a well-developed report or develop a budget and this tells us plenty.   These issues didn’t just appear…many have been hidden in plain sight for many for years.

Parents are stretched thin, often struggling to balance work and family with a host of other responsibilities.  And having just one more thing to do is often enough to tip the scale beyond being able to manage.  Yet I would bet that there isn’t a parent who doesn’t want their child to be able to live and function as a competent, self-sufficient adult.  For many, however, this is a goal that comes with additional requirements in order to achieve it.

Maybe your child won’t be posting on Craigslist or a college Facebook page for someone to write their Sociology paper, and maybe your child won’t find him/herself struggling with emotional issues that makes keeping a full-time job impossible.  But maybe they will.  Wouldn’t it be better to look the needs in the face now, while they’re young, instead of hoping they’ll go away when they become young adults?  We give our children roots as well as wings to fly, but for many, they need far more.

So What Makes A Best Company “Best”

I admit it…I love reading the annual “best company” lists.   Seeing what new organizations have finally reached the holy grail and those that continue to rise to the top year after year by setting the employee engagement and retention bar high.   It’s an added bonus to read about the “perks”, or what I call “mini-benefits”, companies provide for employees.  They get more creative (or outrageous) year after year.

This year’s Fortune list is no different.   To not share a few of my favorites would be like recommending a vacation spot sans photos so yes, a handful follow below.  But first is a shout-out to the tenacious HR and work/life pros whose efforts to sell these ideas to the C-suite when budgets are being cut is exactly what HR is all about…remaining firmly focused on meeting and exceeding the needs of their employees.

So which companies really grabbed my attention this year and why?

  • Boston Consulting Group – issues a “red zone report” to flag when an employee is working excessive long weeks (now *this* is a genuine focus on work/life balance and concerns for the health/stress of employees).
  • Salesforce.com – provides 48 hours of paid time to volunteer (great way to support having a life and involvement outside of the office).
  • Alston & Bird – provides health coverage for autism, infertility, and marriage counseling (talk about an organization that understands and is willing to support life’s “real” issues and complexities).
  • ARI – offers unlimited tuition reimbursement (this is career development on overdrive and supports the importance of continuous learning).
  • Teksystems – encourages employees to “share almost everything” about their personal lives (not sure how this is implemented, but it definitely establishes an environment geared toward breaking down barriers on issues that are typically left unspoken).

It’s easy to see why these organizations achieved “best company” status.  Their bottom-line success is directly tied to an organizational culture that “walks the talk” when it comes to understanding and supporting the diverse nature of their respective workforces and their needs.  HR may have “made the case,” however these organizations clearly have leaders who set the tone. But wait…there’s more.

The dog talent show and bring your dog to work day (not sure why all the focus on dogs – what about cats or rabbits).  Horseshoe throwing lessons.  “Pie your manager” competitions.  Mid-morning cider and donuts.  Steak cookouts.  On-site farmers markets (very cool, I must say).

Are these fun?  Unusual?  Great fodder for social media photos?  You bet, but there’s a huge difference between providing health coverage for infertility and offering donuts with cider (and I enjoy cider too).  The former drills down into issues – often complex, messy, and human – whereas the latter is like sprinkles on a cake – they may make things look better, but don’t necessarily change the taste.

Companies that have achieved “best” status have done so because they’ve addressed the real needs and tough issues facing their employees.  They’ve met employees where they are in their lives with an honest recognition and response, demonstrating their willingness – and desire – to do something about the life cycle challenges their employees are facing today or may face tomorrow.

Ask any employee who works at these organizations and I guarantee that a nod of approval to volunteer in their community or to be told to reduce their work hours to better manage their stress trumps bringing their dog to work for the day anytime.  We’re a culture that often uses words without really understanding their meaning.  For this year’s 100 “best” companies, the meaning is as it is intended … “that which is the most excellent, outstanding, or desirable.”