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by Perri Capell | March 10, 2009

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Question: At my three most recent employers, some mothers with small children were allowed to work four days a week, presumably for less salary. I would like a similar arrangement to attend graduate school or take a side job. How should I ask without seeming like a slacker?

Answer: Allowing working mothers to have flexible schedules can create tension among single or married employees who don't have child-care responsibilities. This is especially true if a company expects childless employees to work longer hours than mothers.

"It implies that they don't have a life," says Joy D'Amore, vice president of human resources and talent acquisition at Foliofn Inc., an online investment-services company based in Vienna, Va.

But it's a mistake for a male employee, such as you, to ask for a similar arrangement simply because mothers have it, says Patrick R. Dailey, chief administrative officer of Herbalife Ltd., a network-marketing company in Los Angeles.

"Don't compare yourself and make demands based on what another employee receives," he advises. "That's not going to be well received."

Some mothers get special flexibility because they are serious about their careers and have a plan for getting their jobs done. Many would prefer to work a full week and hope to do so when their children are older.

Telling your manager you would like a day off each week for a second job sends the opposite message -- that you would prefer to work elsewhere. Further, you mentioned separately that you have had three jobs in a relatively short period. Are you serious about your career or do you enjoy holding a succession of jobs? If it's the latter, it might be better for you and your company if you find a four-day-a-week position elsewhere.

If you are serious about a career where you are, it's probably best to put in more time before asking for a special schedule. Many companies are reluctant to offer special privileges to new employees, says Mr. Dailey. "If you push for things at this point, it's considered improper and sends the wrong signals," he says.

Before you sit down with your boss, decide why you need the time and then ask directly for what you want, Mr. Dailey advises. It's best if your employer values your reasons for needing a special schedule.

Asking for a four-day week so you can attend graduate school is something the company might appreciate because it may eventually benefit from your studies. As I said, requesting a four-day week so you can work elsewhere will likely strike a sour note.

"If you want to work a second job, do so on Saturdays and Sundays," Mr. Dailey advises. "This [sort of request] could jeopardize your ability to advance."

Have a plan for how your work will get done in four days instead of five, Ms. D'Amore says. You may face problems if your manager needs to find someone else to shoulder the extra burden.

Even if you get the day off, your request may affect your career advancement at this company, Mr. Dailey adds. It may view working a full week as an unspoken requirement for promotions, he says.

It's easy to assume that working mothers who are given extra time off for child-care reasons don't work as hard as other employees. But they may be working harder. When I was raising two children, I sometimes had to ask for extra time off or to come in late and leave early. I always did more than was expected of me and earned top performance reviews to make it easy for my manager to give me permission.

Many working mothers have told me they try to pack more into their shifts than other employees, often skipping lunches and other breaks, for the same reason. They sometimes work extra hours at home after their children go to bed to stay on top of things.

To keep your career on track and reach your personal goals, you could ask instead for a compressed schedule, where you put in longer hours over four days. If you did this while attending graduate school, you might be seen as a go-getter instead of a slacker.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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