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by Erin White | March 10, 2009


After accountant Jessica Augustine had her first child, she didn't want to return to her job at Ernst & Young LLP full time. So she decided to talk with her boss about working fewer hours.

Going part time is a move many employees contemplate. But career coaches and managers say workers often approach bosses the wrong way. Too often, employees focus on why part-time work would benefit them. Instead, workers should address the advantages and disadvantages for the employer.

"It's important for people not to think that they're entitled to this," says Billie Williamson, Americas director of flexibility and gender-equity strategy at Ernst & Young. Rather, employees should say: "I want to contribute to the firm and I want to be a valuable team member but I need some help."

Ms. Williamson suggests a number of ways employees can build their cases. Managers sometimes worry part-timers' commitment will fade, so workers should assure bosses that this won't happen. Among other things, employees can agree to be reached outside the office if need be.

Lynn Berger, author of "The Savvy Part-Time Professional: How to Land, Create and Negotiate the Part-Time Job of Your Dreams," recommends that employees begin by researching company policy regarding part-time work. In a 2005 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management of 488 HR professionals, 33% said they have a formal policy allowing part-time work for professionals. Another 39% said they allow part-time arrangements on a case-by-case basis. The other respondents said their employers don't allow part-time work.

Ms. Berger suggests that employees talk with co-workers who have worked part time, and assemble a proposal detailing what work they would continue to handle, as well as how the rest of their job could get done.

Employees should anticipate objections and prepare counter-proposals. For instance, if a manager objects that the group has never had a part-timer, the employee could suggest a three-month trial, Ms. Berger says. The detailed proposal can allay manager fears that the job can't be done part time. "Put your job under a microscope," Ms. Berger says. "Think about every part of your day and how it could affect" co-workers, managers and clients.

Before her daughter was born in April 2004, Ms. Augustine had been working full time for five years as an auditor in Ernst & Young's Raleigh, N.C., office. She served 15 clients, co-led the office's intern program, and recruited at four universities. On average, she worked about 45 to 50 hours a week.

Initially, she planned to return to work full time. But her daughter changed that. "I wanted to be at home with my daughter more," says Ms. Augustine, who is now 34. So she called her boss to discuss her options. She aimed to develop "a business case as to why Ernst & Young would let me go on a reduced schedule," she says.

Ronald Schwartz, a workplace attorney in Chicago, says that employers in most cases have no legal obligation to create part-time posts for women returning from maternity leave.

In her discussions, Ms. Augustine emphasized her client relationships. She had been working with many of them since she joined the firm. Going part time would allow the firm to retain some of her knowledge and contacts.

Her boss was receptive. He asked Ms. Augustine to submit a formal proposal detailing what she would continue to handle, and how the rest of her duties might be reassigned.

Ms. Augustine decided to continue working with three of her 15 clients, so that they would get her full attention. She spoke with partners on the other accounts to see who could step in. Then she talked with those co-workers to see if they were comfortable entering into a new role.

She agreed to be reachable on her days off and flexible about her schedule. She set up her daughter's day care so that it's available five days a week; she can choose when she needs help. "The way I presented it to [my boss] was that I would serve my clients, and if that required me to be flexible on switching my [work] days...I would."

With 100 people doing audit work in Ms. Augustine's office, other staffers were able to absorb her former duties. Two of the people who took on some of her former responsibilities were ultimately promoted.

She scaled back, but didn't eliminate, her recruiting and internship work, to show bosses that her commitment extended beyond clients. She cut her recruiting activities to one campus, and stepped down as co-leader of the internship program.

Her boss accepted her proposal, then narrowed her duties slightly more so she initially didn't take on too much. She began working three days a week.

Her transition wasn't without kinks. One of her three remaining clients required more hours than she expected. Plus, the client's office was an hour away. She talked with her boss, and he switched her to a client closer to home.

Recently, Ms. Augustine was promoted to senior manager from manager. She now works four days, or roughly 80% of a full-time schedule. She plans to keep it that way "for the indefinite future," she says.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues