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

Parents across Silicon Valley say they're concerned they'll be judged by peers who don't have the same family obligations during work hours.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
8 min read

With families stuck at home, tech companies are struggling to adapt their hard-charging cultures.

Getty Images

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  Apple Facebook  and  Uber  say they're barely making it all work. 

More than half of 1,000 people surveyed by Care.com 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."

Watch this: Educational resources for kids

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%.

Companies say they're trying to shift their culture by making it more normal for children to be a part of work life. Yelp said CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, who's a new parent, has discussed juggling childcare with work responsibilities as part of companywide emails. Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have hosted online story-times where they read to their employees' children during the day. Google and Microsoft have officially extended paid family leave. And Uber has shared its accommodation policy across the company.

Whether any of that has helped change employees' mindsets about their peers is unclear. 

Consider a recent conversation on Blind. "We are barely surviving," one employee at Facebook wrote. After sharing that his or her spouse's work wasn't supportive, putting more pressure on babysitting and chores, the employee added, "I can barely work myself."

Though some were supportive, many others pushed back. "You made these choices," one tech employee from Microsoft said. "Man the fuck up," another at Amazon said. "It's not America's job to save you," wrote a third from Yelp.

Alex Stamos, a former head of security at Facebook now teaching at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said in a series of tweets he suspects the critical comments like these inside the social networking giant were driven by young male engineers. They, he said, are the "only people I heard complain."

Amazon didn't respond to requests for comment about how it's working to shape its culture given the survey data and these sentiments. Facebook, Microsoft and Yelp say they're listening to employees and are regularly working with managers to ensure they're supporting their staff.

Changing culture


Learning from home isn't just hard on kids. Parents are also juggling work and home responsibilities.

Getty Images

In the US -- one of the pandemic's worst hot spots, with more than 6 million confirmed cases and 187,000 people dead -- many parents are being forced to choose between their children's health and their livelihoods. Schools have been detecting the virus spreading on their campuses shortly after they've reopened, leading many parents to decide to keep their children home. But that's come with its own set of problems, particularly in the 24/7 crunch culture of Silicon Valley.

Many of the parents I spoke to for this story say they feel as though colleagues who haven't had children, or whose children are grown, don't seem to understand what they're going through. 

Companies say they know it's something that needs to be fixed.

"An employee's experience is one-to-one directly correlated to who their manager is," said Jennifer Davis, head of corporate affairs at computer giant Dell, which employs about 134,000 people. Before the pandemic, the computer maker was already known for its progressive approach to remote work, and it's since said it expects that more than half its employees will work remotely when the pandemic subsides. Dell's also begun training leaders and managers about what's expected of the company culture and how to approach employees.

Dell's leadership has also taken to routinely discussing caregiving in company communications. Michael Dell has read stories to more than 1,000 of his employees' children over a few Zoom conference calls. Executives are publicly advertising family lunch times on their calendars, and starting conference calls by sharing that a loved one may barge in.

"Resilient as you are, I know working parents everywhere are under stress to juggle family obligations, including supporting kids in physical and virtual classes, with work responsibilities," Jeff Clarke, Dell's operations chief and vice chairman, wrote in a late August email to employees. "While we don't have all the answers, we're leaning into our flexible work culture to help give you more options."

New benefits

Companies are trying to figure out how to determine what policies they should set and benefits they should offer for people who may choose to work from home when the pandemic fades. They say they're discussing these ideas now, and some, like Yelp, have announced child- and eldercare benefits starting next year. But they're all focused on managing the short-term crisis too.

Twitter and Dell say they've contracted with companies to help employee's children with live classes and camps online, for example. Dell's also offering one-on-one tutoring sessions and ways for employees to join a partially paid-for "learning pod" in their area, offering a potentially better alternative to overburdened schools during the workday. 

And in addition to his story-time readings, Michael Dell has also preached work-life balance among all his employees. "COVID-19 has made one thing clear -- work is something you do, an outcome, not a place or a time," he wrote in an Aug. 5 email to employees. "We want you to have the flexibility to weather this storm safely and productively, however long it lasts."

He also told all employees that the company would work out flexibility for everyone's needs. "It will likely look different for each of us, and that's OK," he wrote. 

Dell isn't the only company focusing on culture. The world's largest ride-hailing service appears to have made some headway. In August, Uber codified policies ensuring that caregivers are allowed to skip low-priority meetings as needed and modify their work hours throughout the week. Uber also told employees they're allowed to shift their workday if they're managing homeschooling for their children, for example.

"This allows us to set very clear expectations across not just our manager population but also our entire workforce that we recognize exactly how difficult the situation is for anyone with a caregiving responsibility, whether it's children or any other responsibility," Lee said. 

While 67% of Uber's caregiver employees who responded to Blind's survey in April said they're worried they're being inequitably compared with their colleagues, that number dropped to 51% when I asked Blind to rerun the survey in August.

"Inequity has been COVID's greatest ally," Lee added. "The thing that COVID has done really well is it has exposed every inequality and every weak point in any given society." 

Including at work.