Childcare, and flexibility, are both important to working parents

I am disappointed to have seen some commentators disparaging the recent announcements about improving the right to request flexible work under the Fair Work Act.

Employees need, and deserve, flexible work arrangements. The right to request is far from worthless in its current or proposed form: it forces employers to consider, and respond to, requests. They cannot be ignored. The exercise of telling a worker why he or she can’t have flexible work is in itself helpful. No, it is not a revolution in flexible work arrangements, but it’s not worthless, either.

Childcare and flexible work are different measures towards the same goal: allowing men and women their best chance to stay in the workforce after they become parents.

Access to childcare in this country clearly needs improvement. Perhaps commentators that are complaining about the flexibility request changes on the basis that childcare is more important could talk about the measures that have already been taken, and are being proposed, in relation to working parents’ access to childcare services. 

 The history of childcare reform was recorded in a senate report in 1998 (http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate_Committees?url=clac_ctte/completed_inquiries/1996-99/childcare2/report/c02.htm). That history is instructive, for the purposes of assessing the major parties’ philosophies in relation to childcare, over the years.

More recently, I remember very well that one of the first measures that the new elected Howard government took in 1996 was to abolish operating subsidies for community (that is, not-for-profit) child care centres. In the same year, they reduced Childcare Cash Rebate from 30 per cent to 20 per cent for one child families with incomes above $70,000 a year.

 In stark contrast, the current Labor government announced last year that it would invest $22.3 billion in early childhood education and care over the next four years. It said this is more than triple the investment made during the last four years of the Howard Government. In making the announcement about funding, the Minister, Kate Ellis, said:

 “We’ve seen a massive 36 per cent increase in the number of child care services since Labor came to Government and the expansion of the sector shows no signs of slowing.”

 In a speech to the Australian Childcare Allowance in August last year, Minister Ellis said:

 “In affordability alone we have seen a massive increase in investment, we have seen an increase in the child care rebate from 30 to 50 percent, we have seen the increase in the cap of the child care rebate from $4,354 a year up to $7,500 per year but importantly they aren’t the only statistics that matter.  The statistics that matter is the impact that this increase is having in Australian families. What we do know is that in 2004 when a family was spending on average 13 percent of their disposable income on their childcare fees, that by 2011 that figure stood at 7.5 percent.”

Obviously, in politics, substantial childcare reforms will be made only by governments that have the will to improve working parents’ access, and the support on the floor of the parliament to execute that will. My  hope is that working parents will inform themselves about the parties’ childcare policies in deciding how to vote later this year.

Do manners matter?

Courtesy was in short supply this morning, at the south side cafe where my family and I went in search of breakfast.

Patrons stood waiting, in line at the counter to order and pay, while a party ordered a long list of meals, each with some deviation from the menu. The person who took my mother’s order suddenly stopped listening to mum mid-sentence, to turn around and bark instructions at the waitstaff behind her.  A nearby resident did the rounds of the tables, trying to find out who had parked across his driveway. A waiter took away cutlery still in use, and a flat white not yet finished.

None of these is a significant difficulty. Certainly each would attract the hashtag #firstworldproblems, if the subject of a tweet. But each represents a failure to afford courtesy.

AC Grayling has commented on what he perceives to be a decrease in civility:

“Despite appearances, the Western world is not undergoing a new immoral age. It is suffering a different phenomenom: a loss of civility, a deficit of good manners. What is often regarded as moral collapse is no such thing … Rather, what has happened is a decay of what makes the social machine function – a breakdown of the mutual tolerance and respect that allows room in a complex plural society for individuals to live their own lives in peace.”

In other words, civility helps us live alongside each other.  And Grayling claims that an absence of civility leads to much more concerning problems. He says the loss of civility means that

“… social feeling has been replaced by defensiveness, with groups circling their wagons around ‘identity’ concepts of nationality, ethnicity and religion, protecting themselves by putting up barriers against others.”

This idea of minor disrespect leading to major social difficulty is reminiscent of the “Broken Windows” story in Malcolm Gladwell‘s “The Tipping Point“. Gladwell refers to criminologists Wilson and Kelling’s theory that crime is an inevitable result of disorder. He summarises the theory as follows:

If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.”

Referring to the decrease in violent crime in New York, he cites an example where the police crackdown on minor crimes like graffiti and fare evasion led to a sharper decline in violent crime than might otherwise have been the case. He says that both transit police head William Bratton and then Mayor Giuliani had said that minor, seemingly insignificant “quality-of-life” crimes were tipping points for violent crimes.

I am not endorsing Bratton or Giuliani’s methods, but that does not mean that the theory of low level anti-social conduct leading to more significant anti-social conduct, is unworthy of consideration. Perhaps minor incivility can lead to more sinister, broader, problems, in the same way.

Even of itself, incivility can have more extensive consequences than offense on the part of the recipient.

In their Harvard Business Review article “The Price of Incivility,” Christine Porath and Christine Pearson report on their research into the effects in incivility in business:

“Many managers would say that incivility is wrong, but not all recognize that it has tangible costs. Targets of incivility often punish their offenders and the organization, although most hide or bury their feelings and don’t necessarily think of their actions as revenge. Through a poll of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries, we learned just how people’s reactions play out. Among workers who’ve been on the receiving end of incivility:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.
  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender.
  • 66% said that their performance declined.
  • 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined.
  • 12% said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.
  • 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.”

They also report on customer reactions:

“Public rudeness among employees is common, according to our survey of 244 consumers. Whether it’s waiters berating fellow waiters or store clerks criticizing colleagues, disrespectful behavior makes people uncomfortable, and they’re quick to walk out without making a purchase.

We studied this phenomenon with the USC marketing professors Debbie MacInnis and Valerie Folkes. In one experiment, half the participants witnessed a supposed bank representative publicly reprimanding another for incorrectly presenting credit card information. Only 20% of those who’d seen the encounter said that they would use the bank’s services in the future, compared with 80% of those who hadn’t. And nearly two-thirds of those who’d seen the exchange said that they would feel anxious dealing with any employee of the bank.”

I felt the same way during our family outing this morning. The food did not leave a bad taste in my mouth, but the absence of courtesy did, and I probably won’t go back.

Incivility is not, of itself, workplace bullying. Repeated, severe rudeness could be bullying, but once off rudeness is not.  Unlike workplace bullying, it ought not be the province of the law to sanction low-level incivility, per se, at work. The issue is not whether once-off rudeness can be wholly prevented; it can’t be. But the workplace culture will determine the incidence of such behaviour, and whether the person who was rude then responds by apologising or otherwise trying to remedy the effects of the rudeness. It is also an important factor in whether the recipient will simply forgive the rude person, and chalk it up to their perhaps having stress or anxiety that the recipient is unaware of, or whether they will consider it a slight, take offense, and engage in the types of conduct to which Porath and Pearson refer.

Positive change on the work and family front

The Prime Minister has today announced policy changes in response to the Fair Work Act review, to help workers balance work and family.

The first change is to the right to request flexible work. I wrote about the right to request flexible work, in its current form, in October, for New Matilda. You can find the article here. I am looking forward to seeing the proposed changes. The Prime Minister mentioned carers in the interview she gave, so I am hopeful that the right to request will extend to carers of elderly or disabled relatives other than children, as well as to parents.

The other issue that the Prime Minister singled out is roster changes. Roster changes at short notice can cause problems for those parents who have arranged childcare around their rosters. At the moment it is possible for parents in that situation to ask the courts or relevant tribunals for an injunction, using indirect discrimination law, to prevent the roster change from taking effect. But that is an expensive and risky proposition for most workers. I’ll be keenly interested to see the shape of the protection to which the Prime Minister was referring.