Keeping Mums

Want a fiercely loyal work force? It's no secret--it pays to treat working mothers right.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the February 2005 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Frank Guerra didn't know it at the time, but in 1995, a competitor nearly hired the woman who's now his partner. Tess Coody was pregnant when she talked with Guerra about becoming a partner at his San Antonio advertising, marketing and PR agency. She was on the verge of accepting another job with lower pay so she wouldn't have to leave her first child in day care while she was at work.

But Guerra was prepared to do almost anything to get and keep Coody onboard. The two eventually decided on a schedule that would allow her to telecommute two days a week and be in the office the rest of the time.

Since then, Guerra, Coody and partner Trish DeBerry have turned Guerra DeBerry Coody, an ad agency with $30 million in annual billings, into a showcase of ways to help employees who are moms. The firm lets workers telecommute, work part time, and make other arrangements to meet their needs. Also, the offices include a child-care center for employees' children.

"We want the women who work for us to make whatever decision will make them happiest," says Guerra, 44. "If that means staying in the work force, it's our responsibility to do everything we can to help them achieve that."

Guerra's focus on keeping moms in his work force reflects more than a personal bent toward family friendliness. That's smart business, says Joan C. Williams, an expert on working moms and director of the Program on WorkLife Law at American University's Washington College of Law in Washington, DC.

Williams says replacing a woman who leaves costs a company 75 to 175 percent of her annual salary. Given that cost, employers have little choice but to try keeping moms on board. But they're not doing well. The U.S. Census Bureau found that the percentage of mothers in the labor force dropped from 59 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2002. That's the only time that number has fallen since 1976, when the Census Bureau began gathering such data.

"This is a particular problem for small businesses," Williams says. Small firms may be more reluctant or less able to spend on solutions such as on-site day care. And managers are often stretched so thin that flexplace, flextime and telecommuting are viewed as unwieldy solutions. But those are still the best solutions.

A more recent innovation calls for exceptionally flexible schedules, such as those allowing what Williams calls "bites"--an hour or two taken from work to attend events like children's recitals. Another new concept is the flexible career, which allows workers to shift from part-time to full-time work and vice versa. Perhaps the most powerful and still unfortunately rare change is one of attitude, from refusing to accommodate child-care requests to being determined to find ways to make motherhood work at work.

That's what Guerra has done. The result is that he not only attracted and retained his partners, both of whom have worked through pregnancy and motherhood, but also boasts sky-high hiring and retention rates with moms at all levels. "When you have an exceptional candidate you're trying to hire, this is an amazing tiebreaker," he says. "And no one ever leaves us."

Although some mom-friendly firms have experienced resentment from employees who don't have children, that didn't happen at Guerra DeBerry Coody. Coody feels it's because employees know the company's accommodating attitude extends to all workers. "The message they take from it," she says, "is that if you have a situation, we'll work with you to help you find balance."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.

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