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Justice According to Jack Welch

| August 25, 2011

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Judge Loretta A. Preska

A federal court dismissed charges of discrimination against Bloomberg L.P. last week. Here, the director of Family Values @ Work analyses the logic behind this blow struck against women trying to balance work and family life.

When the courts look to former General Electric CEO Jack Welch to decide the law, we know we’re in trouble—particularly if the case has anything to do with paying taxes (GE pays none) or managing work and family responsibilities.

In a recent decision involving the media and financial giant Bloomberg L.P., a federal judge dismissed charges of discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers. There was not enough evidence for a class action suit, ruled Judge Loretta A. Preska. Besides, she declared, employers don’t have to make it possible to have a job and a life. They can demand undying allegiance to work.

So, women are free to rise in the workplace—as long as they prioritize their jobs over children or other loved ones or any other interests outside of work.  For low-wage women, the impact of this total allegiance can be even costlier.  Companies can change schedules at a moment’s notice and deny paid sick time—as long as they make the same requirements of men as of women.

In other words, employers are free to treat everyone like disposable commodities rather than hard-working people who keep their businesses running. 

Upon whose expertise did Judge Preska rely to make her judicial decision? None other than Jack Welch, thrice-married retired CEO of General Electric.

“There’s no such thing as work-life balance,” the judge quoted Welch as saying. “There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

Choices like having kids, perhaps. Jack had four of them.  But then, he had his first wife to raise them. In a book titled Winning, co-written with his third wife, Welch gives this advice on work and family:

I have a sense of how bosses think about the issue, whether they tell you or not…. There's lip service about work-life balance, and then there's reality….

You need to understand that reality:  your boss's top priority is competitiveness. Of course he wants you to be happy, but only inasmuch as it helps the company win.

This wisdom comes from the same guy whose retirement package allowed him unlimited use of corporate jets (one expert valued that perk alone at $291,677 a month) and a company-owned apartment in New York overlooking Central Park. Welch also had access to a limo, a cook, free flowers, country-club memberships and a charge account at a high-end restaurant. Not to mention the sports goodies:  free tickets to Wimbledon, the Knicks, the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

How do we know so much about that retirement package, which deeply embarrassed Welch and GE? The info came out in the second divorce.

For most of us, with lesser means than Jack Welch, caring for the families we love requires some common sense adaptations in the jobs we need—and a voice for those who help the business thrive.

Fortunately, there are employers who’ve learned that allowing people to have lives outside of work actually makes for better outcomes. Whether we’re talking about doctors or executives, being rested and relying on a team approach improves quality.

For instance, a recent New York Times article on “decision fatigue” reports, those who’ve made too many judgment calls in a day “take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs. … [T]hey become inclined to take the safer, easier option even when that option hurts someone else.”

Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister puts it this way: “Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested…”

Allowing people to have full lives, in short, isn’t a favor to women—it’s a better way to run a business.

Too bad Judge Preska didn’t listen to Baumeister.

Or to this statement from Jack Welch:

“If there was ever a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I did,’ this is it. No one, myself included, would ever call me an authority on work-life balance.”

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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