Big business, small business, family business


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Content type
Family Matters article

April 1992


Using data from studies of employers' views on work and family issues by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, this article compares how big and small business approach the challenge of becoming more 'family-friendly'. Similarities and differences are noted; the issue of responsibility for the cost and benefits of the 'human capital' investment in workers with family responsibilities is addressed; the economics-equity issue is examined in the context of the current recession.

Whether a company is a corporate employer of thousands or a local business owner with three employees, the family life of workers is seldom left at home or, as Googins (1991) noted, in the company car park. Workers with families, whether they work for a big firm or a small business, have to arrange child care, look after sick family members, take the dog to the vet, be around for the plumber and attend school functions, just to mention a few of the many activities and obligations that keep a family functioning smoothly.

Employers, large and small, have responsibilities and needs too. They must recruit and retain skilled workers, produce goods or provide a service, make a profit and comply with government requirements on taxation and the provision of a safe and healthy environment for workers.

Employers are under further pressure with the advent of equal opportunity legislation, parental leave and the ratification of the International Labour Organisation Convention 156, 'Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment for Men and Women: Workers with Family Responsibilities' (ILO 1980). Unions, too, make demands for wages and improved conditions.

In the past few years, an impressive array of studies has described the responses of large companies to work and family-related issues (Friedman and Gray 1989; Glezer 1988; Peters, Peters and Caropreso 1990; Adie and Carmody 1991; Friedman 1991; Wolcott 1991; Child Care at Work Ltd 1991). Fewer studies have looked at how smaller businesses handle work and family concerns (Kamerman and Kahn 1987; Glezer 1988).

The Institute recently undertook a study of corporate employers' views on work and family issues (Wolcott 1991), with another study of small employers' views now under way. This article examines the attitudes expressed in those studies and compares how big and small business approach the challenge of becoming more 'family-friendly'.

Similarities and Differences

Large companies are assumed to be in a better position to provide benefits for workers with family responsibilities, whether mandated in legislation or on a voluntary basis. Examples of large Australian corporations establishing child care centres, introducing flexible hours after return from maternity leave or offering time off for family concerns are becoming almost commonplace (Adie and Carmody 1991).

Small businesses are presumed to lack the financial resources and staffing flexibility to meet such requirements. The diversity of small businesses, ranging from owner-only to up to 20 employees in non-manufacturing and to 100 in manufacturing, makes it difficult to generalise about what these businesses can and ought to do to become more family-friendly.

Big companies generally have written policies on leave and benefits, and employers with 100 or more employees are required to have an affirmative action plan. Small businesses generally have more informal policies. But small or large, companies appear to view workers with family responsibilities in a remarkably consistent light.

From big business, we heard: 'Family is all right as long as it doesn't interfere too often'; 'Most mums work part- time'; 'Work comes first; if you couldn't organise your family life over time, your prospects would suffer.'

And from small: 'We try to be flexible when circumstances permit'; 'In this climate business comes first'; 'Time off is possible so long as the job deadlines are met'; 'The ladies that work here do not have young kids so it's not a problem.'

How workers actually negotiate for family time in large and small workplaces is also comparable. The majority of large companies indicated that a combination of annual leave, rostered days off, shift time, special and sick leave in varying configurations answered the needs of most families. In large and small businesses, part-time, shift or casual work was seen to accommodate the needs of women workers. For example, one large company said: 'Shifts are organised so that women can be home in time to make tea for their family.'

In both big and small firms, family responsibilities were not considered to interfere with work because a grandmother was available to care for children, a conclusion confirmed in other Institute studies (Glezer 1991; Ochiltree and Greenblat 1991). Similarly, absenteeism was considered less of a problem for management and professional staff compared with other workers.

Flexible hours are considered more problematic than fixed part- time hours. One large firm put it thus: 'We don't need staff here at eight in the morning or six at night when there is no public to serve.' A small organisation explained: 'For safety reasons, staff can't be here alone.'

In all cases, however, a fair amount of discretionary and flexible time off was evident. At a small firm: 'He leaves early on Friday when his wife goes to tech. and comes in Saturday early'; and in a large corporation: 'They can bring the computer home for a few days if necessary.'

There were distinctions, especially in large corporations, between management or professional staff and clerical, shop and factory floor workers in terms of flexibility in arranging for time off. Managers were assumed to work extended hours and would take time off if needed and make up the work regardless, although these jobs were often considered less conducive to part-time work. Somersaults would be turned to accommodate, and thus retain, highly skilled workers.

Family leave outside of awards or legislation appears to be considered an earned privilege, not a right. This was evident in small and large workplaces where supervisors and owners, not workers, decided whether leave was necessary or possible, case-by-case. For example: 'It depends on each supervisor's perception of an employee; a loyal employee, one who has a good record, would be given more leeway.'

Small business owners frequently mention that if they take time off or their staff do, there is no one to run the office or serve the customers. Respondents in family-run businesses talk about never taking time off and rarely having a holiday.

Accommodating longer-term leave like maternity or parental leave, or providing child care, was usually seen as less appropriate in small business. 'For small business it is just too heavy a burden,' said one respondent. Small business owners were more likely to admit that they selected workers on the basis of family situation. In relation to paid maternity leave, for example: 'We would think twice about employing women of a certain age.'

Glezer (1988) found that few businesses with less than 20 employees had had an employee take maternity leave; the use of maternity leave increased with company size (and thus number of female employees). Employers in the maternity leave study reported more difficulty covering maternity leave for skilled employees; approximately half replaced absent staff with temporary workers and about 42 per cent transferred duties to other employees.

Commenting on the maternity rights in Britain, McRae and Daniel (1991) found that employers large and small were accustomed to covering for sickness, holidays, turnover and other reasons, and they accommodated maternity leave in the same way, generally as described above. A recent American study of leave policies in small business (Trzcinski and Alpert 1990) confirmed that the majority of firms reroute the work of the minority of managers and non-managers who actually take leave.

Increasingly, large corporations in Australia are reported to be publicising and formalising maternity leave, and providing career breaks and reduced hours for employees who return to work (Adie and Carmody 1991). Employers in small companies seem less aware of the mandated rights of employees to maternity and other leave.


Few employers, large or small, would provide formal family- friendly benefits out of altruism. Economics and the force of legislation, rather than equity, is the likely impetus. Fortunately, in many instances, a wish to be a considerate employer and profitability are interrelated.

According to most surveys, family-friendly benefits result in: good public image; retention of skilled workers; improved morale and quality of working life that leads to reduced absenteeism, turnover and stress which, in turn, is seen to increase productivity (Adie and Carmody 1991; Friedman 1991; Berry-Lound 1990; Googins 1991). Costbenefit analysis of workfamily benefits are sometimes confounded by the simultaneous introduction of improved management practice and a focus on the quality of working life as a whole.

Whether leave is paid or unpaid, other benefits continued or workers are replaced, all these affect the overall costs for firms of all sizes (Trzcinski and Alpert 1990).

Who is Responsible?

Nevertheless, the vexatious question of who is to be responsible for the cost and benefits of the 'human capital' investment in workers with family responsibilities is still to be resolved. All businesses must solve the question of how to pay for any costs, financial or organisational, of 'familyfriendly' benefits.

ILO Convention 156 clearly invites a shared responsibility between governments, employers, and the community to provide the work and family supports that will enable workers with family responsibilities and the workplace to function optimally.

The majority of employers in the Institute's studies (Wolcott 1991) believe that the costs should be shared between employers, employees and the government or general community, with the government high on the list for providing incentives, especially through tax. What then are some of the consequences to these partners of sharing the load?


Sharing the burden of workfamily responsibilities could enable parents to compromise rather than sacrifice either their work or family role. Not all jobs are able to be performed under flexible conditions. It may not be possible to combine all jobs and also be a parent who attends every school play and is at home when children return from school. There may have to be choices between 'fast track' and moderate career paths for men and women who wish to balance their home and careers to varying degrees. Some compromise between material aspirations and family time may be necessary.


From the company perspective, particularly larger corporations, employers will have to reconsider some of the habits and myths of workplace organisation. Is it so essential that employees relocate to qualify for promotion? Do all jobs have to be full time? Are early or late meetings the only way to do business? Is productivity and creativity really synonymous with the number of uninterrupted hours spent in an office?

Employee benefits may need to be redefined in the corporate lexicon. Corporate benefits such as cars, entertainment allowances, elegant offices, first-class airfares and executive cafeterias are often considered necessary incentives to retaining prized employees. Child care and family leave options could be added to the benefit shelf.

Friedman and Galinsky (1991) talk about the 'pyramid squeeze', or increased competition for top positions from well-qualified baby-boom staff, where the company provides more family-friendly benefits to compensate for the lack of promotion. Certainly managers have to learn to manage a workforce that is more diverse than the traditional male breadwinnerfemale housewife model.

To bring about change in the ethos and attitudes in the workplace, it is recommended that managers be assessed on how well they manage employees' work and family concerns and learn to ask the question: 'What can be done to help you be a better employee?'

From the top down, it must be shown, in mission statements, training sessions and in the actions of those who set the standards and reward behaviour, that finding ways to help employees balance work and family lives is a component of 'best practice' (Peters, Peters and Caropreso 1990).

It has been suggested that family issues (and solutions) may come to the fore when the cohort of managers who are now reaching maturity suddenly are confronted with having to care for aged parents.

Small businesses may not be in the position to offer many benefit trade-offs. With one, three or even ten employees, flexible arrangements can be problematic.

The community

From the community's perspective, we have to decide what priority to give to enabling men and women to balance work and family lives. The dilemma relates to assumptions about men's and women's roles, the values associated with paid and unpaid work and how children, the elderly and sick are to be cared for. It also raises questions of social justice over economic necessity and what supports ought to be funded in the way of other universal resources such as schools and what is a benefit conferred by the employer.

Child care in some forms is now a tax-free fringe benefit for companies. The Australian Taxation Office has recently allowed several corporations to deduct the cost of child care from employees' gross salaries before they are taxed (known as 'salary sacrificing'). In this case, of course, the only sacrifice is by families (there is only a modest administrative cost to the company), for despite the tax benefit, it is the family, not the company, who still pays for child care. Alternately, fee relief is available to parents according to their income. Adequate payments for childcare workers becomes another issue in balancing the social justice equation (Weekend Australian, 12 February 1992, pp1,7).

Although it is the increased number of women in the workforce that has focused attention on how the workplace and family life intersect, the issue is not just 'women's problems' or child care. It is a question of how to combine the earning of income with caring responsibilities for children, the elderly and the disabled. When men assume more family responsibilities, they will experience the same strains and constraints as women in attempting to balance work and family roles (Friedman and Johnson 1991). As ILO Convention 156 states: '... any change in the traditional role of women must be accompanied by a change in the traditional role of men ...'

Comments from large and small employers reflected traditional views. From small businessmen: 'If my wife returns to work, she'll take a job with less hours until the kids are grown'; 'My wife doesn't work now too difficult; she was too tired and irritable to help kids.' And from the corporate world: 'None of the senior managers have working wives.'

Community institutions also contribute to the workfamily equation. Schools, recreation centres, health facilities, child care and elder care centres, the Post Office and Tax Office have to change how they deliver services to cater for changes in working habits that accommodate workers with family responsibilities.

If community institutions such as schools and aged care centres become more flexible, then workers in big companies or small businesses will be able to meet their family and work roles with less conflict, which must lead to improved family life and work productivity.

Economics or Equity

During recessions the rationale for family-friendly benefits can ring hollow how interested then are employers in recruiting workers or retaining staff after maternity leave? With fewer staff, how willing will employers be to give days off to care for family matters or allow flexible hours of work?

The New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board, for example, recently reported an increase in complaints and inquiries from women about discrimination at work related to pregnancy (Affirmative Action Agency 1991).

Business leaders have advocated the abolition of rostered days off, reduced paid holidays and shorter annual leave in the name of increasing productivity and international competition (Forbes 1990) moves that would do little to promote the balancing of work and family lives. The fixation on reducing absenteeism fails to account for the appropriate use of days off to care for sick children and household emergencies (Business Council of Australia 1989).

According to Friedman and Galinsky (1991), another scenario is possible. Companies may use family benefits as a way to increase the morale of the 'survivors' and retain valued employees.

Alternative working arrangements part-time, casual, shift, contract are heralded as a panacea to restructuring the workplace. The business community, however, appears to put less emphasis on 'equitable flexibility', or work with job security and benefits to prevent the expansion of a peripheral workforce, than on expanding the casual labor force in the guise of workplace flexibility (New Ways to Work 1991; Department of Employment, Education and Training 1989).

In these 'mean and lean' times it is more difficult for a company to afford to hire temporary staff or have roving staff that can take on additional responsibilities, one way some larger companies indicated they handled absences. As a consequence, employees may be asked to handle the tasks of other workers on leave or absent for family responsibilities, thus increasing the pressures on their own family time.

Legislation mandating family leaves and other flexible work arrangements frequently exempts companies with fewer than 50 employees (Bond and others 1991). This raises questions of equity for these workers and legitimate concerns about conducting business for employers.

Presser (1989) raises the question of whether as a community we can make time for children and are willing to pay the price. 'Do we want parents to spend more time with children fathers as well as mothers when they are infants and toddlers?' and are 'we willing to subsidise employers' policies that permit more parental time with children?' (p.538). One should add here, and the elderly or ill.

Whether as a society we will put equity above economic rationalism remains to be seen. Employers in large or small companies, employees, family members and citizens of the community we all have a stake in working out the partnerships that will enable workers with family responsibilities to balance these roles.


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