Drink after work, anyone?

Disclaimer No 1: I’m doing something in writing this blog that I would normally frown upon. Reacting to our soundbite culture.
Disclaimer No 2: I’m also reacting to one of my top two red flags. One is ‘we’ve always done it this way’ and the other is the use of ‘mother/mum’ when the term ‘parent’ should be used. The 2nd applies in this case.
Disclaimer No 3: I am about as disengaged from the ‘divorced from reality’ Labour leadership contest as it is possible to be (which is very sad, but I really can’t let my head explode.)

So yes, I have reacted the ridiculous notion that after work drinks should be banned, as they could discriminate against working ‘mothers’! What? Are the following practices/actvities that fall outside of standard childcare times also heading for the ‘should be banned’ list?
  • Early shifts
  • Late shifts
  • Night shifts
  • Weekend working
  • 24-hour away day events
  • Breakfast meetings
  • Meetings in London that require an early train
  • Work football teams, quiz teams, choirs etc.

And what about all the other things that potentially discriminate against working parents? Chronically low pay, poor public transport, ruthless employers, lack of flexibility. I could go on.

I can only draw on my own experience as a working parent, every organisational culture is different, we are all adults, there will always be cliques and there will always be work friendships. (When does after work drinks become an evening out with friends in your own time? After 6.30pm? After 7? After 8?... Only on a Friday?........) Having said that, I am only too aware that we do not live in the meritocracy I would love to see. So of course, I cannot condone promotions promised over dinner, deals struck on the golf course etc. But I know this goes on. However, we can encourage respectful, diverse and flexible cultures. And we can have adult to adult relationships.

So, I have two children, aged 22 and 19. I went back to work when one was 12 weeks old and when the other was 16 weeks old. I was able to work 4 days a week and my husband shared picking up from the childminder or nursery. The first time I became aware of stereotypical views about parental roles, was when I went into work when daughter, then aged 7 months, was poorly with a chest infection. “But who is looking after her?” was the horrified question. “Err, her dad – she has two parents” my reply. A surprised look.

I think I was only discriminated against for being a parent once. I had been on Maternity Leave for only 18 weeks plus a couple of weeks holiday. So that’s 20 weeks out of 52, or 38% of the year. It was the days of the long abandoned IPR (Individual Performance Review) and related pay in the NHS. I was given only the incremental raise because “you haven’t been here for the full year, so you can’t have met your objectives”. This was from another woman… I was so taken aback (and probably tired and definitely naïve) that I never thought to challenge. It always festered though.

Was there an after work drinks culture in that organisation? Yes, I think so, but quite limited.
Was I part of it? No, and I wasn’t bothered.
Were there other things that I thought linked/united colleagues more and therefore meant they viewed each other more favourably (or could not stand each other)? Yes, definitely - shared history (e.g. went to same school), length of service, trained together, children at same school, related to each other or to each other’s partners or exes (a veritable minefield, that one) etc. How on earth could you ever legislate to prevent any of that affecting progress at work?
Did I stay in that role longer than I should have (and not go for promotions sooner) due to having 2 lots of Maternity Leave and 2 small children? Yes.
Was the above my choice? Yes. Sorry to any parents who feel I’m letting the side down by saying that. It was the right choice at the time – and I think it only held career progression up by 2 or 3 years, which in hindsight is really insignificant. And in any case, career progression is not linear and it is influenced by many, many factors.

Since then, I have held a number of roles, mostly in the public sector, and to be fair, that is a sector that has embraced equality and flexible working well overall. All of the organisations had very different organisational cultures and I have come across, and been able to accommodate all of the following:
  • No after work drinks, in fact no outside of work socialising at all. That was the worst culture I ever worked in.
  • Regular need for early starts for regional travel, meetings in London, early trains etc.
  • Overnight stays linked to events I was attending, or where I was one of the organisers.
  • Being on call, and being called in at any time of the night or weekend.
  • Regular after work drinks with close colleagues, having a laugh, giving each other support during hard times, and forging lasting friendships. Oh and coffees, lunches out etc.

I have been thinking about this a lot and I wrote more, then deleted it. For instance, what about the issue of choice, expectation or even coercion? What about different cultures, what about those who don’t drink alcohol etc? Some of my examples are purely voluntary activities and I can honestly say I never felt under any pressure, or that if I declined to join in this would be frowned upon. Some of these activities were a required part of the role (early starts and being away overnight etc.) and this is where planning (by employer and employee), respectful treatment of each other and flexibility come into play for all parents, not just mothers. And let’s not forget the carers of adult, dependent relatives.

As I wrote earlier, all organisations are different – different cultures, different contexts, different requirements, widely different kinds of work. We are all adults, and we are all human, which means we are likely to be social creatures. We can try to influence and build working cultures that embrace that, and I just can’t imagine how awful it would be if socialising with colleagues outside of work were ever to be banned.


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