You may have heard that Starbucks announced last week that its Chief Operating Officer, Troy Alstead, 51, will soon begin an extended time off. "This was a personal decision to take time with his family," Starbucks spokesman Jim Olson told Reuters.
Alstead, a 23-year vet at the company, described it this way in an email obtained by CNN: "The next year is for my wife and children, to give them my dedicated time and attention. The Starbucks Coffee Break (sabbatical) is a wonderful benefit for long-term partners, and I am excited to be able to take advantage of it now."
Although Starbucks said Alstead and company Chairman, President and CEO Howard Schultz will detail transition plans on its next earnings call, Schultz offered this comment on Alstead’s decision: “Troy is a beloved Starbucks partner and has played an invaluable role in our growth as an enterprise and in the development of our culture as a performance-driven company balanced with humanity, which is unique for our industry. Troy’s humanity and humility will be missed and we wish him the best.”
News Flash: Man Takes Family Leave
Reading between the, er, tea leaves, those remarks sound suspiciously like Alstead is leaving Starbucks for good. Indeed, there was a bit of kerfuffle in the press — and among friends of mine, when I asked them what they thought about a male executive taking a leave to step away for family time.
(MORE: Why Work/Life Balance Is Folly)
Like me, most raised an eyebrow, thinking Alstead won’t be back and surmising that something else is afoot — perhaps a health issue or a management restructuring.
Is this a double standard?
After all, when women say they’re taking time off for their families, that's generally seen as perfectly understandable, if not normal.
If Alstead really is stepping away to be with his wife, Connie, and their four children, I say: Kudos.
But I do think his announcement is a good opportunity for us all to think a bit about what happens when male and female professionals leave their jobs for family matters.
(MORE: The Family Leave Law Is Failing Family Caregivers)
After all, plenty of women make this choice (even if it generally isn’t considered newsworthy when they do). And more men may be doing so, too.
Mohamed El-Erian, 56, quit his job as CEO of PIMCO investment fund in May 2013, telling Reuters “he decided it was more important to be a good dad than a good investor.” (His troubled relationship with then-PIMCO investment chief Bill “Bond King” Gross may have played a part, too.) In March 2014, El-Erian joined Allianz as chief economic adviser to the management board, where he said he spends "50 percent of my time and I love it.”
Financial Repercussions for Both Genders
It turns out, there are financial repercussions for both sexes regarding family leaves.
When men take time off to care for family members, their long-term earnings suffer, just as women's do, according to Scott Coltrane, a sociologist, who is the interim president of the University of Oregon. In fact, they often take a bigger financial hit than women.
Coltrane’s research, detailed in a 2013 article in The Atlantic, found that when men reduced their hours for family reasons, they lost 15.5 percent in earnings over the course of their careers, on average, compared with a drop of 9.8 percent for women. The paycut was also bigger than the 11.2 percent one for men who cut back for other reasons.
What’s more, Coltrane recently told Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times, there is clearly a stigma about men who say, “my kids are more important than my work.”
Who Gets Credit, Who Doesn't
Opinions often change about professional men and women exiting for family matters, though in very different ways, according to Anne Weisberg, Senior Vice President for Strategy at Families and Work Institute.
“When people hear that an executive man or professional man is taking extended time off from his job to spend time with family, they probably have a combination of admiration — wow, he is a good partner/dad — and disdain — something must be wrong with him. He can’t hack it,” says Weisberg.
But when they hear the same thing about an executive woman, says Weisberg, “they don't give her any credit [she doesn’t get any admiration] and the disdain is more around why it took her so long to recognize that she is a bad mother for putting her career first.”
The taking-time-off-for-my-family explanation is likely to shift away from parenting a child to providing eldercare, particularly for older professionals.
A Growing Issue for Midlifers
“This is going to become more of an issue, especially as our parents age,” Weisberg says. “All executives may not have children, but they all have parents, and, increasingly men are providing elder care that may require stepping away from work.”
The challenge, however, may be persuading men to take family leave.
Increasingly, my male friends are switching to flextime schedules so they can deal with aging parent issues. But these men are careful to add that they don’t have a formal arrangement at work to do this. It’s ad hoc; they strike a deal privately with their boss on the q-t.
Jessica DeGroot, president and founder of ThirdPath Institute, a national nonprofit based in Philadelphia that helps employees lead “integrated” lives, gives props to Alstead for his public announcement.
“For years, to be a leader at most corporations — male or female — you had to put work first your entire career and never take your foot off the gas pedal,” says DeGroot. “Somebody disrupting that message is helpful. One way to reframe what Altstead has done is that he’s breaking down the unspoken assumptions about leadership, and it is a man doing it and that is helpful to women.”
But DeGroot concedes that anybody trying to push against the system this way is going to encounter some hurdles.
Advice From the Experts
I asked DeGroot and Weisberg for their advice to others who’d like to have more time with their family:
Get support from your direct boss as the first step. It could be as simple as a trial run. Ask if you can take a four-day workweek for a few months, for instance, and agree to review whether it was a win-win for you and your employer.
Look around at work and see who else has set up a flexible arrangement. How is it working? Ask them how they went about arranging it and the pros and cons.
Look at your effort as role-modeling for the next generation. When younger colleagues see that family time is viewed positively, they may be more likely to continue working there.
Weisberg says: Practice “compulsive transparency.” That means, let your team members, peers, managers and subordinates know what is going on in your personal life.
Encourage everyone around you to be transparent with you, too. “That is the best way to create a climate of acknowledging the whole person,” Weisberg notes. Then, “if you step away, people will understand the context of the decision and not leap to conclusions that may or may not be right.”
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