Ask a Boss: I’m Expected to Work Extra Because I Don’t Have Kids!

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Dear Boss,

I joined my current team as an event coordinator about four months ago and am the sole events person on the team. The way our team is structured, we have two project managers who work on different events, managing associates who assist them with the programs, and both project managers work directly with me to plan the logistics for the events. 

One of the project managers, Jane, had a baby last year. Because of this, she has been afforded an extremely flexible schedule (working from home two days a week, leaving early all the other days), which I think is great, as it allows her to have a work-life balance. The problem is this: One of the project associates and I are constantly being asked to stay full-time at these programs, when Jane is allowed to come and go pretty much as she pleases, sometimes to be home, but other times she has taken vacation DURING the weeks of her programs, and pushed off the week-of responsibilities to the associate on the team. In fact, usually when this other associate is asked to come to an event, it is not one that she is even working on, but it’s because Jane does not want to be there or says she can’t be there because of her baby and she has the director pull someone off another project to come be on-site. 

Another example is coming up next week. Jane and I are working on a weeklong program, local to our area (usually we travel a few states away), but initially were both planning to stay at the hotel to ensure that we had someone on-site at all time. However, somehow Jane and the director of our team decided that she will only stay over for one or two of the days (and arrive every morning), and I will have to be there on-site the entire time, 24/7. Am I wrong in thinking that because this is her program, she should also have to be there, or we should be able to switch off?  I feel as though I’m being discriminated against because I don’t have a child, and they are assuming that my time is always free. 

I want to note that I have no problem being on-site when I need to be … for example, most of our programs are not local, and I am on-site from a day or two before the program until the very last attendee leaves and all the materials are cleaned up. For some reason, though, it’s really grating on me that we are local, everyone else will get to go home, but I have to stay there because I don’t have a child at home. I’ve tried pushing back and saying that maybe we can switch off a few days, but the director keeps insisting someone should be on-site for “emergencies.” I know in her head, she is imagining that someone will get too drunk and get in trouble with the hotel, but even when we are on-site the entire time for our “away” programs, there is usually nothing that I can do, and I don’t feel comfortable policing the drinking activities of adults anyway. Any advice? 

Yeah, it is indeed very much a thing in some offices that people without kids are held to different expectations than people with kids. In those offices, not having kids means people think that you’re always available to stay late, work weekends, or cover for co-workers’ emergencies, and that, unlike parents, you don’t have “good enough” reasons for asking for flexibility. That’s obviously not reasonable or fair; not having kids doesn’t mean being magically free of responsibilities or a life outside of work, and you’re as entitled to your off-work time as anyone else is.

Not only do non-parents in some offices end up being denied the flexibility that parents get, there’s something even more frustrating going on too: In the process of trying to be family-friendly to one group of people, these employers end up being family-unfriendly to a different group. Plenty of people without kids have other family responsibilities, like significant others, aging parents, and even “chosen families” of friends … as well as other ways they’d like to spend their personal time (whether it’s hitting the gym or lounging on the couch with a book), which they have as much claim to as anyone else.

Your situation is a perfect example of this. It’s great that your company is willing to give Jane a flexible schedule. But instead of taking on those costs themselves (e.g., hiring additional staff, bringing in a temp, paying you more for your time, or anything else that isn’t just “push it all onto existing staff members”), they’re asking you to be the one who sacrifices so that they can be family-friendly to someone else. Being truly family-friendly would mean that your company supports Jane’s schedule — but instead they’re just shifting the burden over to you.

And that’s on them, not on Jane. If your director has approved an abbreviated work schedule for Jane, possibly for reduced pay, then Jane is acting exactly as she and your employer agreed that she would act – and the issue is that no one is addressing what that means for you or making the workload adjustments that the situation necessitates. Instead, everyone involved seems to be assuming that you’ll just happily step in without anyone ever having a direct conversation with you to discuss how this is shifting the expectations for your role and whether that’s feasible for you.

So, what can you do about it? Since no one has bothered to talk to you about what Jane’s flexibility will mean for you, you’re going to have to initiate that conversation yourself. I’d start with your director, and say something like this: “I’m finding that Jane’s schedule means that 100 percent of the coverage for her events is falling to me. For example, for next week’s event, originally we had planned to switch on and off so we each had time away, but it’s ended up that I’ll be responsible for 24/7 coverage that week and she’ll only be there one or two days. I’m happy to help out in a pinch, but it’s not sustainable for me to continue filling in for her as often as I’ve needed to recently. If she’s not expected to return to full availability soon, can we explore other ways of getting additional coverage?”

Note that the language here isn’t passing judgment on whether or not your director should be approving all this flexibility for Jane; that’s her call to make. Instead, you’re keeping the focus on your part of this, which is that you’re not able to cover for her all the time.

It also might help to get really specific about what you can and can’t do. For example, you might explain that you can cover Monday through Wednesday at the event but have evening commitments on Thursday and Friday and can’t supply coverage then. Who knows? You might discover that you can lay out your own boundaries just like Jane does.

Whether to explicitly name the parents-vs.-non-parents issue is trickier because you’re new and presumably don’t have a ton of political capital built up yet. If you’d been there longer and had a good track record with your boss, I’d suggest saying something like, “I think it’s great that we’re being so family-friendly for a new parent. But the burden of making that possible is falling heavily on me. Is there something that we can do so that I’m not the one shouldering the weight of helping Jane get a flexible schedule?” But that’s tough to pull off as a new person so, for now at least, I’d leave the seeming preferential treatment for parents out of it and just address it as a work-allocation issue.

Now, from here, a few different things could happen: Your boss could take this as a wake-up call that the current system isn’t working and find some other way of allocating work. Or she could tell you that this is part of your job now, even if things were different before Jane’s situation changed, in which case you’d need to decide if you’re up for the job as it’s currently configured. Or there might be some middle ground – like she’ll tell you to just get through the next few months and things should change after that.

But by having this conversation, you’ll get the issue on the table and make it known that this is a problem for you – and that’s the first step. Your director and Jane have probably been assuming that you’re just fine with this because you haven’t said otherwise. So speak up, explain the impact on you, and see what you can negotiate from there.

That said, there’s one potentially huge caveat here that you need to investigate before you do any of this: In your particular case, it’s possible that providing this kind of coverage is actually the nature of your job regardless of Jane’s flexible schedule. It’s pretty typical for an event coordinator to be expected to be on-site the whole time an event is going on – so that might not be about Jane at all. Since you’ve only been there four months and weren’t there before Jane had her baby, is there any chance that this was always how your respective roles were intended to work? My hunch is that that’s not the case, based on the details you provided … but it’s worth finding that out for sure before you proceed.

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