The fear of using the F-word in job interviews

"Why are so many of us nervous to bring up flexibility during interviews?"

"Why are so many of us nervous to bring up flexibility during interviews?" Photo: Stocksy

A headhunter recently tapped me on the shoulder for a full-time gig. It was an interesting role and, with the kids getting older, I decided to give it a crack. The recruitment process was robust and after a number of interviews it looked like the job could be mine.

With excitement building I pictured myself in the role. But that familiar dread crept in as I contemplated the challenges we'd need to negotiate as a family with both parents working full-time.

The school pick-ups. The after school activities. The homework. The special assemblies the kids beg one of us to attend. The sports carnivals. The music recital. The inevitable debates about who would stay home to look after a sick child.

I made it clear in the interviews I was a parent, but I hadn't asked about flexibility. While I wanted to get that 'F-word' out, I baulked, worried it would be seen as a weakness. And I wasn't the only one with that concern.

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"Wait until they fall in love with you and make you a firm offer before you ask about flexibility," was the advice from the headhunter.

Why are so many of us nervous to bring up flexibility during interviews, despite numerous studies showing flexible work practices improve the bottom line by boosting retention, morale and productivity?

I'm not the only one who hesitates to use the F-word in an interview.

Claire* is currently seeking a senior marketing role after her previous position was made redundant. At the same time, her teenage son has been diagnosed with mental health issues requiring frequent medical support.

"As the primary breadwinner, I need to work to look after my family and satisfy my own ambitions," she said. "But I'm frustrated by the rigid and outdated expectations that you need to be in an office five days a week, 12 hours a day."

"Discussing flexibility with a prospective employer is like walking a tightrope. Even though I work hard and have a strong work ethic, there is a niggling worry that I will be disadvantaged if I bring it up."

But it's not just the recruitment process; flexibility has also proven a death knell for those scaling the corporate ladder. When Sandra* was offered a promotion to the same level of seniority she held prior to having children, she was ready to step back up.

"I asked if I could work from home one day a week plus flexible start and finish times so I could work from home in the evenings. But I was told that my working arrangement would need to be 'more traditional', which basically translated to no flexibility. Gutted, I declined the new role."

"It was a real eye-opener for me; the company was happy to offer flexibility but only up to a certain level on the career rung. There wasn't a glass ceiling, it was a brick ceiling," she said.

So going back to that job I was headhunted for, in the end I opted out. My hesitation made me realise I didn't want to relinquish my family's ability to function effectively to a company that would potentially measure my productivity by the number of hours I was seen sitting at a desk.

Instead, I've decided to keep working for myself as an independent consultant, so I can work when I want, where I want: at home, in a client's office, in the car, in my children's school playground or the local cafe.

"We need to re-think the 9 to 5, 'clock-in, clock-out' mentality and understand that people can be productive in lots of different environments," said Claire. "I often do my best work late at night, at home, in a cafe or even in the doctor's office while waiting for my son to have his appointment."

Rest assured, there is hope. Microsoft Australia's managing director Pip Marlow, for example, echoes Claire's sentiment, reminding her staff they don't always have to come into the office to make an impact.

"Technology has given us the opportunity to work remotely and research shows the practice is efficient and productive," she said. "Our offices are wherever we are; our work hours are when we choose them. It's the outcome that's important. I firmly believe work is not a place you go, but a thing you do."

For many, flexibility is not a privilege – it's a necessity, especially for families with a single parent or children with health issues. For companies, flexibility is an advantage, enabling talented, skilled and motivated people to remain in the workforce regardless of their personal situations.

And yet, so many of us – employees and employers – are still scared to utter it, like it's a dirty word.

* Not their real names.

Lisa Lintern is a corporate communications strategist and freelance writer. She tweets at @lisa_lintern