Tech firms face growing resentment toward parent employees during COVID-19

Originally published September 6, 2020

By Ian Sherr

Silicon Valley had to change the way its employees work when the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close, businesses to abandon their offices and millions of people to quarantine in their homes across the US starting in March. Among the changes, companies offered flexible schedules and increased time off to help caregivers and employees in their ranks take care of their families.

But though the companies said they’d support parents at home with their children, not all managers and co-workers agreed. Over time, an undercurrent of resentment has bubbled up across the tech industry against those splitting time between work and family, and it’s spilled out in public on employee message boards, company chat software and on social networks. At Facebook, the pushback has forced COO Sheryl Sandberg, a parent herself, to defend the company’s policies.

“I do believe parents have certain challenges,” Sandberg said in an August meeting, according to a report in The New York Times. “But everyone has challenges, and those challenges are very, very real.”

Meanwhile, some employees at AppleFacebook and Uber say they’re barely making it all work. 

More than half of 1,000 people surveyed by said they felt like they’d let down their colleagues due to juggling children and work during the pandemic. Of the respondents to the survey, published in August, 52% said they hide their childcare issues because they worry colleagues won’t understand. And 45% believe their career advancement has suffered because they’re juggling work and kids at home.

“Even those who have relatively adequate childcare, they’re struggling,” said Bo Young Lee, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Uber, which counts about 22,000 employees in its workforce. Uber’s management team has increasingly embraced a new mantra over the past few months, she added, as coronavirus cases have topped 26 million around the world, killing at least 867,000 people. “For a while, people thought this would pass and it would all return to normal,” she added. “There is no return to normal.”

As the pandemic spread, many tech companies expanded policies to help parents deal with the sudden responsibility of caring for children while also working full time. Some, like Google and Microsoft, extended paid time off. Companies like Apple, Facebook and Uber also emphasized willingness to allow for more-variable work schedules.

Those efforts allow tech employees flexibility to continue working, even as a majority say they plan to keep their kids home from school for the foreseeable future to avoid potential exposure to the virus. In a July survey by Blind, an anonymous social networking app for employees, which authenticates where people work using their employee email address, 69% of 1,053 tech industry workers said their children will stay home.

Some companies, such as Dell, Twitter and Yelp, are publicly embracing family commitments, regularly discussing the issue companywide and encouraging managers and colleagues to support one another. 

Other tech firms express the same sentiments to caregiver employees and to the press. But some employees say the companies haven’t successfully woven those feelings into their hard-charging cultures, which, before the pandemic, often included the expectation that people would endure long commutes to the office so they could be at their desks, working into the evening.

It’s led to surprising clashes within tech companies, where parent employees are learning that some managers and peers resent the benefits and flexibility parents are getting. Many parents are also reporting they need more time to finish tasks, in part because of the regular interruptions caused by children. A July survey of 1,726 active job seekers by the recruiting site ZipRecruiter found that mothers at home with school-age kids expect work hours to reduce by 9%, while fathers say they expect a drop of 5%.

Taken together, these new working arrangements have led some nonparent employees to accuse the parents of being treated better by management while failing to pull their weight.

One Apple employee, who isn’t authorized to discuss internal matters with the press, encountered frustrating resistance when asking for a more flexible schedule. The employee wanted to split, with a working spouse, the care of their toddler and their preteen, who’s learning remotely. A manager responded that the employee was expected to work full time, or not at all. “Unofficially.”

“I’m glad I didn’t take any of my COVID leave already,” this person’s spouse said.

The manager wasn’t following Apple’s policy, which the company reiterated is “to be flexible, collaborative and accommodating of every parent and caregiver on our teams.” “This is a trying time for everyone — especially parents — and we want to do all we can to support every member of our Apple family,” Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet said in the spring.

In efforts to support employees, Apple’s HR team has been joining meetings throughout the company, encouraging people to reach out with any issues they might have. The company’s also worked closely with firms it’s partnered with for mental health services, ComPsych and Sanvello, to help people cope with the stress the pandemic’s caused. And CEO Tim Cook has also discussed the struggles employees and their families are facing in his broad communications with the company.

To be sure, not every parent is having these bad experiences, and many say their companies are supporting them.

Still, these types of experiences with rogue managers or toxic employees are unsettling many parents.

When the Boston Consulting Group surveyed 3,055 people across the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy, in March and April, it found more than a third of respondents were worried their performance would be unfairly compared with that of colleagues without family obligations. 

In Blind’s July survey, the number jumped to 62% among Silicon Valley parents. Facebook ranked worst, with 83 perecent of parents expressing those concerns. At Amazon, it was 76% of parents. At Apple and Google, it was 65%. At Microsoft it was 60%.

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