Last week, sexism, singleism, and workaholism came together to create a big post-balance era faux pas that reinforced why we must remove the often inaccurate judgments about a person’s personal life and responsibilities from the hiring process. It started when Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell commented that his fellow governor, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, would be perfect in the role of Secretary of Homeland Security, “Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day to it.” Uh oh.
First, let’s look at how others interpreted Governor Rendell’s remarks. What did they hear? Not surprisingly, the same words were interpreted differently depending upon the work+life fit lens people were looking through.
For moms, like CNN’s Campbell Brown, Rendell’s words were sexist (or “mom”ist). They meant that if Napolitano did have a family she couldn’t do the job, which is not only unfair but wrong. The nomination of Sarah Palin for Vice President sparked a similar debate.
“Workplace discrimination against mothers and others based on family caregiving responsibilities is a rapidly growing problem,” notes the introduction from a new policy briefing released by the Sloan Work and Family Research Network and the Center for Work Life Law. It is such a problem that there are new enforcement guidelines from the EEOC on caregiver discrimination and many states are considering legislation. But, comments like Governor Rendell’s, however innocent, further reinforce the bias.
Another group, represented in a New York Times OpEd piece by Gail Collins, felt Rendell’s comments promoted “single”ism, or the assumption that because Janet Napolitano is single, she has no family and no life and therefore, can and wants to, work all of the time.
This is the other side of the sexism coin but is equally inaccurate. In my work, I have found that single people have unique challenges that add an extra layer to their personal responsibilities. They have to do all of their own errands, home maintenance, financial planning, shopping, etc, as well as care for parents, pets, and friends. The belief that if you are single, you are all about work is completely untrue.
Now, let’s consider what Governor Rendell says he was trying to say. In a nutshell, he was trying to say, “She’s a workaholic like me.” According to Governor Rendell, he has no life. And as far as he knows, Napolitano has no life because she has no family. He believes that’s what’s required to be the Governor of Pennsylvania, or a Secretary of Homeland Security.
Now, I’ve been doing my job long enough to know that you can waste a lot of time trying to change someone who thinks that to do a good job you need to work all the time. Some people work constantly out of a compulsion or the desire to work. And most of them, like Ed Rendell, do believe it’s what’s required to do their job. That’s fine, but it can’t be the bar against which we measure everyone else’s ability and effectiveness. (See a recent article on Forbes.com “Surviving a Workaholic Spouse” in which I’m quoted)
Most jobs don’t require working all of the time to complete well. I’ve met plenty of competent people with very demanding, highly-responsible jobs who work long hours but also feel it’s important to have relationships and interests outside of work. In fact, most would argue it makes them better at their jobs. (For more, see Stewart Friedman’s book, Total Leadership)
Maybe Governor Rendell’s definition of success is all work, all the time. But it doesn’t have to be Janet Napolitano’s in order for her to be a Secretary of Homeland Security.
What lessons can we all learn from this seemingly accidental work+life fit faux pas? We need to update the way in which we interpret our own work+life fit choices and those of others. We also need to take “life” out of the hiring equation. When someone is being considered for a job the primary question for that person must be “can you perform the tasks and responsibilities required?” and not “How will he or she do the job given what I perceive to be his or her personal responsibilities?”
Like Governor Rendell, we get into trouble applying simplistic, outdated paradigms to judge someone’s personal realities. The truth is that few of us have work+life fit realities that fit neatly into any category. My experience is that when we do try to guess or judge, we are usually wrong. Keep it about the job. Leave life out of it.
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