Family Values That Pay

May 02, 2018

By Cheryl Harmon

Twenty-five years ago, I was working at a CPA firm. I had taken a bunch of work home with me, which was typical and expected at the firm. I think my oldest daughter was about three at the time, and she asked me if I wanted to play. I said, sure, even though I’m sitting there with papers all around me thinking, this is going to be difficult. She looked up at me and said, “Ok,” she grabbed a briefcase and continued, “I’ll see you later honey, I’m off to a meeting,” and like an authoritative business woman, trotted out of the room. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

This was my ah-ha moment.

It wasn’t long after that I left the CPA world to work at a school. At the school, my daughter could be on campus with me; I could bring her to school and take her home. Everything felt much more manageable.

The struggle of many families to balance their work life and family life is a national conversation that touches nearly every industry. While it’s a national conversation, it impacts individual businesses. At SRG, we wanted to do something concrete to make it easier for families to find balance in their lives. We wanted to take actions that would improve retention and morale, support everyone fairly as they progress through their careers, and increase diversity and inclusion.

Diversity and inclusion is such a big topic, it can be daunting. How does a firm responsibly engage in this conversation that can range from gender, to race, to class, to many, many others? SRG’s response has been to work with a consultant to organize firm wide strategic planning meetings and trainings. Guided by the expertise of Lillian Tsai at Solid Ground Consulting, it’s safe to say everyone has been learning a lot.

“True change will require modification to the policies and cultures of major firms in order to foster a climate of acceptance and visibility for those who have traditionally been underrepresented.” Architectural Digest

At the time of writing this blog, SRG has spent over 1,500 hours on firm-wide diversity training and another 200 hours will occur in May 2018. In these trainings, uncomfortable issues have been broached and difficult conversations have been necessary. The encouraging thing is that as a firm we are growing, and we are recognizing concrete steps we can take to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion because of these meetings and trainings.

One of those steps is to expand our benefits by including a paid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) policy. The thing I’m most excited to announce is we’re doing it NOW.

FMLA generally allows twelve weeks of unpaid time, and SRG is committing to paying 100% salary for four of those weeks for FMLA events. This salary payment will not be derived from short or long-term disability accounts that will embroil our staff in a mess of administrative forms and paperwork; SRG is keeping it simple: if someone on our staff qualifies for FMLA, those first four weeks are on us.

At SRG, we take pride in our office culture and celebrate work-life balance and a healthy environment. We work with staff to make it easier to work from home or organize flexible working hours. Staff are welcome to bring in their dogs, and during school breaks and holidays, it’s not uncommon to see a few children in the studio. There’s a new generation of employees out there who are looking for forward- thinking companies. We don’t want to wait for local, state, or federal governments to mandate this support for our employees; we are going to act immediately, because it’s the right thing to do.

Many companies will say that while they desire a paid FMLA policy for their employees, that they simply can’t afford it. Honestly, budgeting can be challenging. It wasn’t an easy path to institute this policy at SRG – paid FMLA wasn’t included in our annual operating expenses, so there was technically no budget. However, we concluded that we couldn’t afford not to do it.

It was important for our staff, and the benefit of increasing morale and retention outweighed the perceived financial cost, and there is data to support the fact that paid FMLA can save a company money.

”Some employers spend double the salary of a high-skilled worker to find their replacement.” CXO Magazine, Northeastern University

At SRG, this policy immediately benefited a medical leave, a maternity leave and two paternity leaves. We’re already seeing the benefits of this plan as four employees haven’t had to make the choice between their health, their families, and their careers.

Adding four weeks at 100% pay to our FMLA policy won’t solve diversity and inclusion issues in architecture, but it’s one of many steps we are going to take, because ultimately it's good for people, good for communities, and good for the built environment.


Cheryl Harmon