Human Resources: A Covenantal Relationship

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November 1, 2012
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Marc Kramer

It has been said that an organization’s budget is a portrait of its values expressed in dollars and cents. What, then, do human resource policies portray about the values of a nonprofit? And how, as a company’s executive director, do I help draw the lines and mix the palette for that portrait?

I have the honor of leading an organization whose Jewish values have driven a “family-first” workplace policy. “Family-first” is not synonymous with “family-friendly.” Family-friendly organizations give employees flextime, offer unpaid parental leave (and commit to holding the individual’s position), or suggest that the new mother sign up for disability insurance following the birth of a child. Family-friendly policies also allow employees to set aside pretax dollars to fund medical and child-care expenses. All of these policies — designed to retain good workers and to protect the organization’s interests — are laudable efforts that should become the norm in the Jewish community.

At RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, a hub agency of more than 120 independent Jewish day schools across North America, our “family-first” policies improve not only the work conditions but also the work itself. Our workplace policies are grounded in our understanding of Jewish tradition, which enshrines the family as sacred and prizes children above all else. We take seriously the obligation to pay workers fairly and on time, and to abhor all notions of (real, imagined, and metaphoric) slavery. We believe that the concept of b’tzelem Elokim, that we’re made in the image of God, mandates  respect for diversity and insists that we accept people for who they are and not for who we want them to be.

As we craft our employees’ handbook, we’re hoping to state emphatically that families come first. Here are a few examples of what we’re planning to include in this covenantal document:

• We do not “count” sick days and we do not dock time for staying home with a sick child or elder relative. No one chooses to get sick and no one should be penalized for it.

• We do not “count” vacation days. We want people to take the time they need when they need it in order to be an effective member of their family and a rejuvenated member of the staff.

• We do not “count” shiva days as leave, nor do we restrict attendance at such observances to those commemorating the loss of an immediate family member. We let employees define “family” for themselves: Whom they love and on what terms is not our business.

• We encourage our employees to plan their  work so that they can  attend their children’s ballet recitals, school plays, and important baseball games. We expect employees to leave work early to welcome their children home after the first day of school, or to leave work and stand by their partner during a doctoral thesis defense. Our work does not trump attending to the important moments in the lives of our families.

• We are, of course, closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. In order to prepare for those sacred times, our office is also closed the day before a major holiday. And employees who are not Jewish do not work on the days they hold sacred. We close early on Friday all year round. We want the preparation for the holiday — travel, cooking, putting up the sukkah, shopping, etc. — to be part of living a meaningful, engaged Jewish life.

• Although ours is a small nonprofit exempt from the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, we pay full-time employees during family medical leave. And we offer parental (not maternity) leave for up to three months.

• We pay for our employees’ health insurance. Even in the face of rising health-care costs, we see this as a moral obligation.

• Every day has the potential to be a “bring your child to work” day. Our children are always welcomed, and we keep crayons, construction paper, stickers, and snacks on hand at all times.

• Employees with long commutes can work from home on Fridays. Most of the staff have the technology to telecommute, as well as smart phones, off-site network connections, laptops, and tablets, which can maximize efficiencies.

What has been the effect on our workplace policies? Anecdotally, I can offer a few reflections. First, employees seem to take off less time and to appreciate their time off even more. And employees strive to be efficient and effective. They measure their work by its quality, not its quantity. Doing work well is the goal; doing it 9 to 5 is not. People who work at RAVSAK are happy. In addition to their dedication to the
network, they appreciate our dedication to them. And so, people want to work here.

The strategy is not perfect. One employee who took a paid family leave took another job just before returning. New employees need time to adjust to the autonomy and the inherent responsibility that comes with that autonomy. Ours is a system that could easily be abused. But I believe that the limitations are trivial compared with the benefits.

My father liked to remind me of the common wisdom that no one wishes, on their deathbed, that they had spent more time at the office. And though I spend a tremendous amount of time working (60-hour weeks are a norm), because I’ve not missed one of my children’s school plays, soccer games, siddur ceremonies, or recitals, I don’t mind. In fact, knowing that I work in a place that shares my values makes me want to work harder. Thanks to our family-first way of doing business, I know that my moral compass will always point due north to my family and that my work will gain, not suffer, from putting them first.

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Dr. Marc N. Kramer is the executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network. He can be reached at mkramer@ravsak.org.

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