In 2014, NY Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, created an uproar when he decided to make use of the paternity leave clause in his contract to attend the birth of his son. Though a few radio commentators questioned his judgement, public reaction was highly positive. This week baseball has again moved the issue of working fathers to the forefront of national discourse, asking, “What are men willing to give up at work for connection to their children?” White Sox player, Adam LaRoche, has shown what he is willing to give up in order to keep his son close at hand: $13 million.
LaRoche announced his retirement after White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams asked LaRoche to limit clubhouse appearances of his son, Drake, who has been coming to the clubhouse for some time. According to an interview with LaRoche on Good Morning America he had informally negotiated the arrangement when he started on the team and Drake spent his time in the clubhouse doing chores for the other players.
By retiring early, LaRoche has forfeited his $13 million salary for the current season. His team members have rallied around him, though public response seems mixed between celebrating his #Familyfirst values and questioning his decision to not put up with the request for six months and then retire with his full salary. Though LaRoche has acknowledged that $13 million is a significant sum he also notes that he is in a position to turn down that money for what he believes in.
Williams has stated that as a manager he is ready to make unpopular decisions for the good of the team, an attitude I deeply respect. However, I question whether this is an example of that managerial ethic in action. Thus far there has been no clear link made between the boy’s presence and the team’s performance, and even Williams has stated that the boy was not a distraction.
Instead Williams indicates his motivations were to refocus the team on the current season and to set a precedent for future fathers around how much time children could be in the clubhouse. Given the known facts it seems strange that Williams would have asked for Drake to spend less time in the clubhouse at all. Not only does his presence do no harm, the request for his absence has disrupted the team, cost the White Sox a player, and drawn unwanted attention.
So how did Williams get into this situation? My guess is that Williams has made a common leadership mistake: confusing the exercise of control with good strategy. Though no one can know for sure, my supposition is that, as the man in charge, Williams very much wants to show that he is on top of the team’s losing streak and is doing everything he can to get things back on track. And that’s where he probably went wrong.
When organizations hit a rough patch, some leaders seem to possess an instinct to save them by driving employees to work harder. This can take the form of demanding longer hours away from family or ending alternative work arrangements, like telework, even if those requests are not clearly connected to improved results. The implication is that greater commitment, effort, and sacrifice is what’s needed to make the organization thrive again.
Yet many times these investments are less about actually improving performance than making a statement that something is being done about performance. The call for employees to commit more is an easier demonstration that the employer is handling the situation than changing something fundamental in the organizational status quo. So leaders may start there, even when it’s unlikely to result in any real advantage.
Usually employees need the money too much to quit on the spot and will either linger in resentment or leave at their next opportunity. In the competitive world of professional employment, especially highly paid positions tapping rare skills, that next opportunity may not be far away.
Don’t get me wrong, I sympathize with Williams’ position of having to determine the appropriate amount of time for a child to be at the workplace and what he would say to the next father who wanted to do the same thing. However, given the vast resources of a ball team, the cost for creating an onsite child care plan (for players and administrative staff) would likely be negligible. Certainly not comparable to the $13 million being paid to just one valued employee.
The lessons here go well beyond the idea that men are willing to give up big bucks for a more integrated form of work and fatherhood. They highlight the responsibility of leadership to direct people and policy towards actions that achieve results rather than a reactionary response just to show they are engaging with a problem.
By Kenneth Matos