When George Schofield’s son fell flat on his face and was injured at school, the single father and vice president at Bank of America looked over at his boss, blurted out the word "code" and raced out the door.
An odd turn of phrase, perhaps, but all part of a deal Schofield had worked out with his boss so that if he ever needed to leave for a child-related emergency, nobody else besides his boss needed to know. Schofield’s son was fine, but it wasn’t the only time the father of two needed to use the code word.
Schofield, now a Florida-based author, developmental psychologist and life coach, had mostly kept quiet about his divorce in the workplace to avoid looking unstable at work – and he advises his clients to do the same.
Though divorce is increasingly common, it still carries a workplace stigma at times, and more importantly, has practical implications that affect your career. How much time you have to take off work to deal with single parenthood or court proceedings? Will the emotional upheaval affect your work performance?
Even if you are careful to stay focused at the office, divorce can change the way your colleagues view you and the way you see your own work.
"Men…who took on the main breadwinning, career-building role … sometimes go through major changes in terms of their attitudes to work after separation," said Patrick Parkinson, law professor at the University of Sydney. "No longer can they work the long hours if they wish to maintain actively involved with their kids.”
That often leads to career changes or not raising a hand for a promotion if, say, the job requires longer hours or extensive travel, he said.
The degree to which there is a societal stigma around divorce — and the extent to which it plays out in the workplace varies around the world, and partly depends on how prevalent divorces are in different regions or countries.
Divorce rates worldwide range from 25% to 50% of all marriages. Divorce rates are notoriously difficult both to calculate and compare, country to country, but according to the United Nations, the highest divorce rates are in the Maldives, Belarus and the United States.
Rates have been rising fast among people aged 50 and older, who are in their prime earning years and often have the most to lose in their careers.
"The societal stigma has faded, but it's there to some extent," said Susan Brown, professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in the US and co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research.
In Australia, the stigma has faded, said Parkinson. "It happens so often now, and to senior executives, that I think it is a matter for empathy," he said.
Here’s how to keep your career intact during and after a divorce.
Though you'll have to tell your boss, keep the chatter about the minutia of your divorce to a minimum. More than other life events, divorces have the potential to backfire on you.
"Grief is always expensive in the workplace," said Brown. "Getting a divorce is an extremely emotionally difficult process. Divorce negotiations and proceedings can go on for months or years. It's such a huge life stressor."
There may be an extra bias against a woman, because there's the perception — and often the reality — that the divorced woman ends up with the lion's share of the child care. "There's the idea or the interpretation that she may not be as available," Brown said. "Any man or woman who is standing around the water cooler talking about every detail of their divorce is not doing their career any favors."
Focus on being as "directed and intentional as possible," said Roy Cohen, New York City-based career coach and author of the Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide. He tells his clients, "to find a place to put the emotional baggage and recognize it will be there when they are ready to deal with it."
Have a cover for time off
Develop a story to cover any turmoil on your resume. One of Cohen's clients was a senior level executive at a Wall Street firm when his wife served him divorce papers.
He had difficult sales targets to hit and needed a bit of leeway to sort through his private life. "He lost his job eventually," Cohen said.
The client used the hiatus to sort out childcare — and then, when he began looking for a new job, developed a simple explanation that glossed over any intimation that his work may have suffered while he sorted through the divorce.
Cohen said: "It was something like: As a result of a recent divorce I gained custody of my kids. I felt that it was important to take a little time off for a number of reasons. I wanted to make sure that the kids were settled and it was important to establish some order for them. It was the best decision I could have ever made. They're doing great.”
"Virtually everyone understood [the break]," Cohen said. "More women understood it than men."
Cohen said potential employers will forgive one hiatus due to a life crisis, but the more you have, the worse it looks.
Seize the day
Consider whether the divorce can help you reinvent yourself. Nancy Claus, 60, the features editor of Westchester Magazine in New York returned to her roots in the magazine business, after running a successful public relations firm with her ex-husband. She used the weekends her husband had custody of their three children as a time to figure out her plan.
"It was the first time [since] my married life I was on my own," she said.
Choose your bosses carefully
Schofield was explicit with his boss at the Bank of America about what he calls a “mini-contract.” He told his boss that he'd be a top performer — and in exchange, he would need flexibility. He triggered that need for flexibility with the word "code."
Don't use divorce as an excuse
Though you need time to recover and, possibly, grieve, experts say it's also crucial to focus on a strategy that keeps your career on an upward trajectory. For women, especially, their financial health depends on it. Though many divorced women in the US ramp up their careers after a divorce, it's often not enough to make up for hit they take because of reduced spousal benefits under Social Security during retirement.
Maintaining that upward trajectory may not be as difficult as it seems, says Abby Rodman, a social worker who is researching women in mid-life divorces. Though women said financial struggles were an issue post-divorce, "many women say they are happier," she said.