What to do about colleagues who shirk work for family responsibilities?

It’s that time of year again, folks–at least for those of us on semesters with absurdly long semesters.  (15 weeks!  FIFTEEN WEEKS–say it like Cruella DeVille’s “FIF-TEEN PUPPIES!”, plus a week of exams!  How did I ever get into grad school or get a job with a B.A. earned in slight 12-week increments?)  Mid-August is a funny time of year, because classes haven’t yet started, but most of us have been fielding requests to meet with advisees, and most of us have a faculty retreat, or a first-of-the-new-academic year departmental meeting, and maybe a meet-and-greet the new grad students get-together.  These meetings are a part of the obligation of faculty life–and attendance at these events seems to me a small thing to expect, especially considering the favor of the previously unscheduled 12 or 13 weeks of the summer that many of us enjoy.  But–and you all know who they are, because there’s at least one in every department–there are some of our colleagues who treat these August meetings and obligations as though they’re merely optional.

cryingbabiesThus, the question from the mailbag at Historiann HQ:

Dear Historiann,

My question for you and your readers is a faculty-with-children thing.  I am in a tiny department, which is even smaller now because one colleague is on leave in the fall.  This week is opening week, and we’re all supposed to be on campus.

A female colleague with children lives 75 minutes out of town, so she normally only comes in three days a week. This week, there is a day that we really must have someone available for advising duty, according to our Dean.  I would normally do the job, but am in meetings for most of the day — meetings that in part have to do with me already taking on a duty no one else in the department could bother doing.  I’ve informed my colleagues of this, and another (male) colleague with children has not responded, and the female said she couldn’t do it and couldn’t our other colleague? 

My male colleague’s toddler is in daycare. My female colleague’s kids are school age. My female colleague responded to my reminder that we were all supposed to be on campus with a note saying that child-care and financial issues prevented her from coming in to campus.  But we are paid to do a job!  Moreover, this colleague has regularly canceled classes on days her kids are out of school to take them places, or to do other kid- or family activities.  She has never been able to find a sitter for these weeks where we are not teaching, but are supposed to  be in meetings, revising curricula, etc.

So that’s it — what do you do with colleagues whose family obligations prevent them from performing some of their duties?  And is it an issue, or more of an issue, when the colleague is a woman, because it can add to the perception that women are not as serious about their work?  (This particular colleague gets way more writing done than many of us, because once the kids are in school, she can either go to local archives or even just write at home without interruption till they come home.)

Frankly, as a person with only one income and no kids, I resent being expected to pick up the slack.


Fed Up

Oh, Fed Up, how I feel your pain!  It’s really irritating to work with colleagues who think that the rules don’t actually apply to them.  Fortunately, I haven’t seen this in such dramatic fashion in my work environments–in fact, I have some sympathy for your colleague who lives out of town.  Dr. Mister Historiann has never managed to find a job in the towns where my universities have been located, and we always live closest to his work because it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever be called on to administer a livesaving lecture in early American history in the middle of the night.  We all know that emergencies happen, and in households with children, they will happen more frequently than in households that include only other adults and/or pets, but missing the occasional meeting or class because someone barfed at school and had to be sent home for the rest of the afternoon is different from refusing to find child care in the first place.  (What is it with parents and their modern refusal to find babysitters these days?  I hear this complaint a lot, both from people who are child-free and who even have children themselves.  What gives?  Are there no more teenaged or college-aged babysitters to be found these days?  Are even progressive parents so captive to “Dr. Laura”-style advice that says that leaving their children with someone else for an hour or two will irreparably damage them?)

Where we live, and whether we choose to reproduce, is a choice, not an unavoidable obligation or accident, and we all have to arrange our personal lives around our work responsibilities.  That, it seems to me, is a minimum qualification for retaining one’s job.  So it’s not that your colleagues’ families “prevent them from performing some of their duties;” your colleagues are choosing not to perform some of their duties.  It’s reasonable, in my opinion, to want to restrict on-campus days to one’s teaching days, especially if your department is one that expects a certain level of research productivity, but having a 2- or 3-day a week schedule is a privilege, not an entitlement.  We all should understand that if department meetings, job talks, special guest lectures, and the like are scheduled on a non-teaching day, we need to make the schlep.  (And, by the way:  it’s really uncool for people who are on Tuesday-Thursday schedules to complain about having to come to campus a burdensome THIRD DAY of the whole week!  Besides:  by the time you’re an Associate Prof., you’re on campus 3 days a week, no matter what your teaching schedule is.) 

It is unacceptable and unfair to use one’s family life–or any other chronic excuse–to duck out of work, regardless of the sex of the ducker.  (I hear you when you say you fear that your female colleague is reinforcing all sorts of stereotypes about mothers in academia–but the problem really is gender-neutral, and should be addressed in that fashion.)  Somehow, your colleagues manage to find child care when they need to teach their classes or to get some research and writing done–and if they can find child care to do the parts of their jobs they find pleasurable and interesting, then they can find day care, babysitters, or neighbors to help out when they need to attend meetings and meet with advisees.  School-aged children can come to campus with them, if necessary–I have colleagues whose school-aged children do homework or play happily and quietly in their offices while they’re in meetings or teaching classes on occasion.  (I really don’t how or why your female colleague pleads “financial” difficulty in making the trek to her workplace.  Isn’t going to work a solution to financial need?)  Perhaps your department Chair could offer them the option of being adjunct faculty, whose only obligation is teaching.  There are a lot of adjuncts in your area, I am sure, who would love to join the tenure -track with its attendant responsibilities to self-government and administration.

But, none of the above sermonizing addresses your question about what to do about colleagues who abuse their flexible schedules, and who appear to lean on you and others who made the unfortunate choice to live closer to campus and/or not to have children.  This is something that is best addressed by your department Chair and/or the Dean, depending on the administrative structure of your college or university.  A gentle but pointed and firm reminder about the obligations regular faculty have beyond their teaching and research is something only a department Chair or other administrator can issue and enforcewith poor service evaluations and deductions in merit pay.  After all–it’s not personal, it’s not anti-natalist, it’s just business.  And as you point out, it’s only fair to everyone else.  I would be really interested to hear if my dear readers have any particular advice or suggestions for Fed Up, and I’m hoping someone will chime in with the recipe for Magic Good Colleague Fairy Dust.

If you have a Chair who refuses to enforce these obligations, you have my sympathy.  In that case, you can reinforce your own boundaries and refuse to “pitch in” beyond what’s reasonable and fair.  (In a small department like Fed Up’s, there are presumably a very limited number of people the  Chair can call on!)  And it’s certainly unreasonable and unfair for department Chairs to lean on the compliant and uncomplaining out of deference to the complainers and the shirkers!

One final word:  the thing about children is that they grow up.  They don’t need child-care forever, and then eventually they leave home.  And if your department Chair doesn’t take a firm stand now, my guess is that a lot of the people who use their children as an excuse to duck out on professional responsibilities will find other reasons once the baby chicks have flown the nest.  I work with a lot of people who have children, including very young as well as school-aged children, and my homies get sh!t done.  They show up to meetings and do their jobs–occasionally with their children, but more often they’ve made other arrangements–because they are adults who understand their professional responsibilities.

0 thoughts on “What to do about colleagues who shirk work for family responsibilities?

  1. I’ve really enjoyed this thread.

    I have noticed, to shift the topic somewhat, that when the subject of maternity/paternity leave for academics comes up, men benefit quite a bit more. Here, both are available, and so married academic couples can actually stagger their leaves to cover the full first year, which puts off daycare costs and is great for all. But in *some* cases, a few of my men-friends have used paternity leave more as paid research leave, and have even traveled abroad to do fieldwork, archival digging, or whatever. My women-friends, in contrast, typically breast-feed through the first year, so this isn’t possible. I’ve seen this often enough, so there is an undeniable pattern, for sure.

    Now back to the thread. Unless service is tied to the annual review, and unless the annual review has teeth (i.e. financial consequence for those who fare well, and no raise for those who don’t), there isn’t anything anyone can do. And if you find yourself pulling the rope for someone else (and not letting the Dean provide extra help/new hires/more staff/professional advising) then you are complicit, and should make peace with it. (This is Z’s point above, I think). We make our choices, our own happiness and unhappiness, and we should own it. Every-time I grumble about the silverback males in my department – usually when I am doing “their” work – I’m really just mad at myself for picking up the mess.


  2. (1) Shirkers are shirkers, regardless of why they shirk. “Family responsibilities” is a red herring. As someone else pointed out, dead-wood washed-up dumbfuck tenured old-dudes tend to be the worst shirkers.

    (2) As far as enforcing boundaries and refusing to take on unfair burdens because you are (a) single, (b) no-kids, (c) live close to campus, or (d) whatthefuckever, my policy when declining to take on a task or duty is to never give an explicit reason. All I ever say is, “I would like to be able to do that, but it isn’t going to be possible.” If anyone ever pushes me, my only response is, “My existing responsibilities and duties do not permit me to take on that additional task/duty.”

    This is very useful, because it makes it very clear that a negotiation simply isn’t going to occur. The minute you provide an “excuse”, you open the door for a discussion of the validity of your “excuse” and the weighing of your “excuse” against the “excuses” of others.

    Of course, it takes some metaphorical balls to do this kind of thing, rather than to seek “permission” for your “excuse” not to take on a task/duty. But once you and your colleagues get used to it, it gets easier and easier. And it also becomes quite liberating, both for you and your colleagues.

    Finally, this only works if you are–in general–a team player and one who does take on her fair share of service tasks/duties. If you yourself are a shirker, then fuck you.


  3. Lance wrote, But in *some* cases, a few of my men-friends have used paternity leave more as paid research leave, and have even traveled abroad to do fieldwork, archival digging, or whatever. My women-friends, in contrast, typically breast-feed through the first year, so this isn’t possible. I’ve seen this often enough, so there is an undeniable pattern, for sure.

    I’ve heard of this happening, but I think any kind of parental leave is rare these days, so it’s probably only a few people who can even contemplate abusing the system. It’s annoying–but it strikes me that department Chairs and Deans should determine that leaving the country while on paid parental leave is FRAUD, and demand that the offender pay back the money or the time off. (After all, a faculty member who used her sabbatical to go to the playground and eat ice-cream cones with her kids every day would presumably be called to justify how she spent her time–why shouldn’t Professor Daddy Fraudmeister?)

    And, yes: we do make our own messes, and we have to live with them. The art of saying “NO” is a delicate but necessary one!


  4. This is how it should be. But few care enough about the ethics of the day-to-day to make it halfway real. Accountability is a conservative buzzword these days, but that doesn’t mean it is a conservative concern.

    And I know way too many women who have used their sabbatical to care for newborns – especially adopted children, who don’t often fall under maternity leave policy. (Only recently here, in fact).


  5. CPP–it might in many environments take more than “some metaphorical balls” to do as you suggest, but I think it’s certainly worth a try. Even if women get more pushback for pushing back, it beats the alternative of being a dormat.

    I think your advice is good about not offering excuses. A lot of readers have mistaken my post as a commentary on the righteousness of the excuse, rather than as a commentary on the behavior in question. I take responsibility for that in calling my post “What to do about colleagues who shirk work for family responsiblities,” but in re-reading my post, it’s clear that I don’t think the kids are the problem. It’s the grownups who aren’t making provisions to get their work done.


  6. Historiann… You could always stick a “Back in 5” note on your door!

    I also agree with CPP… don’t give excuses. It works in social situations also “Sorry, I won’t be able to make it.” If pushed, “other obligations” (Even when said obligations are scheduled me-time). Once you start with excuses, everyone has a better one and/or a hook to try to make you feel like a heel.


  7. It’s funny to read this thread on a day when I met with someone about home care for my husband, who is older and has cancer and a variety of other problems. I’ve got a schedule where I have to be on campus for meetings three days a week. There will occasionally be meetings and events I have to attend, but that’s something I can usually manage.

    Our campus has managed the fact that there are many people who live far away by using speakerphones in a lot of meetings. I’ve done meetings from hospital emergency rooms that way… (My advice: don’t if you don’t need to.)

    I wonder if one of the keys to this is that when many of us (and I include myself) talk, we say, “I need some time for my work”, by which we mean our scholarship. So our jobs don’t factor as our work…


  8. To pick up on Susan’s final point about certain parts of the job not counting as work, part of the problem is that we continue to use lousy language: SERVICE. Tedious meetings, committees, welcome-back events, commencement, responsibility for running the university! This isn’t service; it’s part of the job. So I agree with those who say, treat it like a job.

    The problem of people who don’t carry their weight goes beyond certain parents and even beyond certain full profs. People are able to do this because of the strange relationship we have with our own calendars. And the reality that chairs are not able to keep tabs on time and have relatively little power to do anything. But I do think a good chair can remind people that it’s important to be at this event or that meeting.


  9. Susan–I’m sorry to hear that you’re looking into home care, although I’m sure it will bring you peace of mind when you have to be away from home.

    Rad, great point: maybe “service” needs a marketing makeover. What would make it sound more appealing: Community Stewardship? Opportunities for Leadership? But in the end, as some other commenters have noted, unless it counts for more it won’t get more of our attention.

    In my former department, the Chair (who was an Associate Professor) raised this issue, and proposed that we rejigger our effort distribution to give more credit for service. It was self-interested in part, but he asked how we could expect people to pitch in and do the work unless we reward it more (or at least make neglecting it more painful, in terms of evaluations and raises)? In the end, the department (which was not a research intensive department) voted down his proposal. So, I am doubtful that this will change in my lifetime, unless universities from the top on down give the order that service outranks research.

    And that, my friends, ain’t gonna happen, until the Ph.D. mutates from being a research degree to being an administrative degree. (A D.B.A., correlative to an M.B.A., perhaps).


  10. At risk of swimming against the tide of at least some of this fascinating thread, I’d say that the way to redeem service would be not to make it *sound* more appealing via re-branding, and especially not to enmesh it in a command and control apparatus, by reward or whatever. It would be to make it *be* more appealing, which might mean a lot less of it from time to time. Most academics complain a lot, me the foremost, and everyone complains about committees. But that fact doesn’t mean that what they do isn’t fairly often idiotic, more playing house than housekeeping. At places with contractually specified elements like fixed office hours, collective bargaining pay scales instead of salary exercises, and vague but permissive definitions of just what counts as or is required under the scholarship category, service can become the happily embraced refuge of people who don’t want to deal with peer review or with the lonely ambiguity of the empty page.

    Anyone who has been trapped in a room with ten insightful, creative, even visionary inquirers suddenly talking mush knows that committees tend to generate committeework. Service events are easy to schedule, easy to take attendance at, and their products, if any, don’t get reviewed in the journals. Figuring out who’s been effectively missing in action on the life of the mind side sometimes takes years.

    If we made all service voluntary, what got shirked on at certain levels would have to go, even if some kid didn’t get to be the Roswell Essay Prize Scholar that particular year. The “enterprise” itself would have to generate service ideas that could hold their own in the marketplace of creative energy. Plausibly worthy but in the end unattractive service ideas would fall by the wayside, just like some of our hopeful typescripts end up in the samizdat slushpile. Counterintuitive but quirkilly compelling ones would get traction and actually happen for a while, until they too fell by the wayside. Some years would just be dry service holes.

    Just a thought, teetering on a rant, but offered in the critical spirit. My last slack, I should say, was this spring, when I didn’t go to the departmental commencement, because, well, because I just didn’t feel like it. But I did do child-care duty so a colleague who did want to go could do so.


  11. At Colgate, I found that running to the library quickly was a good way to get a student to come and sit outside waiting for me to come back.

    My adviser at Wisconsin also had a great line he used to encourage undergrads to come to his office: “I close my door to keep my colleagues out, never my students.” This, at least, gave him a reputation as approachable. In our history department at Wisconsin, some people often held evening office hours at a local bar or coffeehouse. I did this leading up to papers, and had a steady stream of visitors who were busy during the day.


  12. Susan — first, I’m sorry. Second, YES! I spent almost 4 hours of my Saturday attending a campus function, and when it was over, started worrying that I hadn’t done any work all day — and then caught myself and thought, “wait, that was 4 hours of me being on campus actively doing something I was asked to do by my boss — how is that not work?”


  13. Indyanna–good point. I was mostly joking about re-branding “service!” But, I’m seriously doubtful that we could come to any kind of consensus about which “service” activities were useful and/or enjoyable. Some people relish hours-long meetings discussion curriculum revisions. Some people enjoy commencement, whereas others prefer to write long memos…

    Service is as varied as faculty are–perhaps the answer is one that operates on a micro-level: try to figure out what’s most enjoyable (or least painful) for you, and focus your efforts there. Even so, some aspects of service are like grading is to teaching: no one really likes it, but it’s gotta be done.


  14. And I was only kidding that we could or should make it voluntary, only wondering how it might mutate in an experimental environment where it was that. We could perhaps take a lesson from the undergraduate sphere. You don’t build a campus service culture by putting them in orange jump suits next to a trash-strewn highway and saying that someone else did it last year. You bring pizza, explicate the good cause, and mention that it will be a great opportunity to get covered with mud! :}


  15. Although you have probably moved on to the next post…we should brainstorm a bit. Rebranding or renaming…Service is

    duties, faculty responsibilities, campus work, tedious labor, university work, stuff

    Think of it as…research,teaching, and…


  16. Wow, great discussion, Historiann! Thanks for hosting. I’m sorry to get here so late. I’ve been stuck in my windowless office for two days, advising students, because it’s the week before classes start–which is probably what that poor dean meant. Someone’s gotta do it. (And someone will do it again tomorrow. How else will I shed my tan for an appropriately scholarly pallor?)


  17. Fascinating discussion. The well-meant advice I constantly got as junior faculty was that, for the sake of tenure and advancing my career, to avoid as much as possible anything like service, on-campus involvement, _and teaching_. I get that research is paramount in the decision, but that just didn’t feel like any way that I could do my job. So I disregarded that advice, maybe to my own detriment in some ways (but not others).

    I get the point made by Historiann and others that family responsibilities are a distraction from the main issue here of shirking. But it’s remarkable that the explicit criticism all focuses on the mother that the original writer mentions, and not the faculty father, who not only shirks the same duty, but _doesn’t even bother to reply_ by email about it!


  18. onebad–I agree! Although it sounds like Fed Up has more of a history with the shirking female colleague, and has seen her history of cancelling classes to suit her children’s schedules, etc.

    I’m always interested, too, in the missing fathers in stories like these. Why do women enable their male partners like this, to the (possible) detriment of their own careers?


  19. CPP–yes, yes, I know the BIG answer to “why,” but I don’t understand why more women don’t (in the words of William F. Buckley) “stand athwart the tide of history and scream STOP!” (Or, I think he said something like that.)

    That is, patriarchy is powerful, but we all have free or free-ish will, and if well-educated women don’t start making more demands on their male partners, then what hope is there for the rest of the world? I think privileged women have a greater obligation to try to change things.


  20. I know I’m too late for the discussion, but I just wanted to elaborate on a point that you made earlier Historiann. A lot of parents on this thread have lamented the lack of “affordable” childcare. What is affordable to you? I work as a pre-school teacher for a full $8.75 an hour. This is what I like to call “not a living wage.” If my daycare made the childcare more “affordable” for the parents, you can sure as hell bet it’d mean a paycut for me. And you really do get what you pay for. My boss said at a meeting “Don’t mention to the parents that you’ve been peed on and spit up on, etc, because they pay us a lot of money for you to get peed/spit up on!” Well, they may pay you “a lot” of money, but I sure don’t get paid enough to get spit up on, peed on, cried at, and have tantrums thrown at without losing my ever-present smile! What I’m saying is, I’m less likely to be the eternally cheerful, never unpleasant, and always super-fun and creative daycare worker if I don’t make enough money to pay my bills. Not to mention the fact that none of the women working at the daycare could afford to enroll their own children in it without deep discounts. So paying less money for daycare is not something I can get behind.

    Sorry for the rant, Historiann!


  21. Lalaroo–I really appreciate your perspective, so thanks for commenting. I have a lot of ideas about why caring for young children is so underpaid. I think it’s mostly that it’s traditionally women’s labor, but I also think there’s a weird shame and denial about the whole transaction that many middle-class parents feel. It’s like if they paid a decent wage for the work, that somehow makes what they’re paying for more visible as labor, when they don’t want to admit the extent to which they rely on other people’s help to raise their children.

    Why don’t we want to recognize child care as labor? Believe me, the child care workers I have known are SO much more knowledgable and skilled than I or most of my friends are about developmental milestones, appropriate toys and games, and when children should be encouraged to move on (from bottles, from diapers, from other relics of babyhood, etc.) Most of the parents I know are grateful for the patience and expertise of child-care workers like you, and I am entirely with you that you should be recognized and rewarded much better for the work you do.


  22. I think that’s a really insightful point about the shame/denial that can be felt by parents. We still have a culture that is all too happy to shame parents, especially mothers, for having life outside of their children.And their are still a lot of people that think that putting your child in daycare is going to turn them into some kind of criminal psychopath, which is ridiculous, of course.

    I think it’s possible that having childcare be underpaid serves a bunch of purposes under patriarchy – if we admit it’s difficult and something that should be compensated well, then how can we marginalize SAHMs? It also serves to help keep a class divide between the parents and the providers, which can soothe parents’ anxiety about whether the caregiver is doing a better job than the parent, or whether the child prefers the caregiver. That class boundary can help parents feel more secure in their status as “better”, I think – you know, they’re just “the help”. Which is not to say that any of the parents I’ve had have treated me poorly or been dismissive – I don’t think this is overt so much as possibly subconscious, and certainly doesn’t apply to every parent. It just occurred to me when I read your comment.


  23. Pingback: Tales of money, gender, and the ruling class: Nantucket, 1994 : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  24. Lalaroo–you inspired today’s post, so I hope you’ll comment on that and will participate in the discussion if you can. I think you’re exactly right about how “having childcare be underpaid serves a bunch of purposes under patriarchy.” Excellent points.


  25. I just wanted to say that I think what bothered me in the first part of the discussion was actually the OP itself, because it set up an argument that implied that most shirkers were people (read: women) with children. Or that shirking mothers is an epidemic.

    (Also, historiann, have you read the piece at bitch on having a child not being a choice? I had never thought of it that way before myself and was really startled by the brilliance of her argument – that society depends on procreation, socially, biologically, and economically. If we don’t think this is the case, then look at the pickle Japan is in, the gloom & doom economic forecasts, as well as the lengths the gov’t is going to to get women to have babies. Socially, we rely on having a next generation for a whole variety of functions. [Bitch isn’t making some kind of creepy pro life antifeminist argument, but rather the opposite – that families deserve gov’t support because all society benefits from a next generation.])


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