Gender equality is a mission everyone can and should get behind. But sometimes it’s easier said than done. Despite having a clear goal, we all encounter difficult situations, or gray areas, that leave us sometimes confused as to the appropriate, or “correct” action.
Continuing their mission of promoting gender equality, the Manbassadors of HBS have launched Dear Manbassadors, a blog for men to confidentially ask the tough gender questions, and receive expert advice from business, legal, and ethical perspectives. The mission is to provide an easily accessible, anonymous source to think about the right course of action.
Check it out at dearmanbassador.com, and bookmark the page to check out future posts. Enjoy the inaugural post here, exclusively at The Harbus.
I run a startup with 5 full-time and 4 part-time employees. We’re expanding rapidly and I can’t hire fast enough to fill our open positions.
After a round of interviews for one of these roles, the best candidate we found was a woman, whom I’ll call Jane. Jane has the skills we need and seems like a hard worker. But she also appears to be pregnant. We’re growing quickly, so having a new hire go on maternity leave for months would be a big blow.
Of course, I couldn’t ask directly if she’s planning to take a long maternity leave … or could I? Tom, the runner-up candidate, is almost as good as Jane on paper and my co-founder is leaning towards hiring him.
How do I make the right choice between these candidates?
Thank you, Frazzled, for being a part of our experiment!
Here at Dear Manbassador, our mission is to answer the tough question: “What does it mean to be a Manbassador in work and life after business school?” So we’re collecting real questions from students and readers and answering them with the help of experts.
Frazzled, we get the quandary you’re in. You’re facing a ton of pressure as a founder, with investors, employees, and customers relying on you to make the right hiring choices so your company can scale. To answer your question, we asked Lena Goldberg, a distinguished lawyer and senior lecturer at Harvard Business School for her advice. (Thanks Lena!)
There are two sides to your questions: legal and ethical. Legally, companies must abide by fair employment laws. When do those laws apply to a startup? As soon as you have 15 employees, you’re bound by federal statutes. But some states are stricter — in Massachusetts, the law covers companies with just 5 employees. So if anything in your hiring process suggests that you’re treating Jane’s pregnancy differently than you would a medical or physical disability, you are violating anti-discrimination laws and you could be sued.
Ethically, Lena suggested an interesting analogy: What if you, as a co-founder, were in a bike accident (God forbid), you experienced a concussion and other injuries, and you needed bedrest for 3 months? What would happen to your company?
Well, your co-founder and employees would probably rally around you as much as possible. They would know that you’re on a short-term disability leave, you’re coming back to work eventually, and that your capabilities will be unchanged when you return. In the meantime, you’d probably get creative and use your phone, Skype, and laptop to stay connected to the office.
So why should a maternity leave be treated any differently?
Now of course, you may still have concerns about whether you can ask Jane about her plans for maternity leave. Anti-discrimination laws make it difficult to ask about fit, but you can certainly describe the team-based culture of your office using gender neutral team-focused expressions. For example:
“Everyone takes responsibility here, but we also rally around each other and understand when coworkers need help. When Jeff needs to go to his daughter’s soccer game, our team helps him get out the door. But we also expect Jeff to be accountable for his work and pitch in when someone else needs flexibility.”
The trouble at young companies can be when mechanisms aren’t in place yet to handle employees who repeatedly take advantage of a flexible team culture. So it’s important to have a mission statement that includes the notion of pulling your own weight and pitching in to help, holding real performance reviews at least twice a year, and soliciting 360 degree feedback on employees. If you have a performance management system in place that monitors an employee’s conduct, you’ll be able to deal with any issues if Jane does, say, leave at 3pm every day without finishing her work.
So in short, here’s our advice to you, Frazzled: if Jane’s the best person for the job and she seems like she would fit into your company culture, hire her. But don’t forget to pay attention to Jane’s (and your other employees’) performance.
Matt Simpson (HBS ’17) is one of the Joint Chiefs of the Manbassadors at HBS. In addition to discussions of gender equality, you can often find him engaged in deep conversation around the automotive industry and his hometown of Detroit. Previously he was a consultant with Accenture.