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Babies on board at California dealership

Policy lets employees bring their infants to work

Brylee, left, Finance Director Shelly Khan's daughter, scoots toward the showroom. At right, Grant, Contract Clerk Rebecca Huber's son, sorts through the filing cabinets.
Baby steps
At Freeman Motors in California, employees can bring infants to work for one year. It helps the mother manage childcare and lifts employees' spirits.

It's not out of the ordinary to see a baby cruising around the showroom floor or snoozing in an F&I office at Freeman Motors.

Three associates at the Santa Rosa, Calif., Toyota and Lexus stores had babies around the same time about two years ago. Dianna Freeman, the dealer principal, didn't want to lose her employees, but she recognized that daycare could be a challenge.

It's expensive, "and you don't see [your babies] or interact with them when they're at daycare," she said.

Freeman: Moms and babies bond.

The idea to bring the babies to work arose from a conversation with Shelly Khan, the finance director, sales manager and first of the three employees to become pregnant.

When Khan told Freeman the news, Freeman suggested an experiment: Khan could bring her daughter to work until she was about 1 year old.

"I was completely shocked," Khan said, and "overwhelmed that [Freeman] cared enough and would allow it to happen. I thought she was kind of crazy."

When Freeman's children were young, she worked as an independent contractor and brought them to client meetings.

As a mother herself, "I had compassion for employees that have to leave a baby behind," she said. "That bonding experience is quite important."

Freeman said the babies were allowed only in safe areas of the stores, not in parts and service areas, for example. But she knew that having babies at the dealerships could still come with challenges.

In any position, "it's a little harder on the mother to try to get your work done because you have to take time out to feed them and change them, but they sleep a good portion of the time," Freeman said.

She made it clear to her employees that this was an experiment. If it didn't work, the experiment would end.

After Khan found out she was having a baby, two of her colleagues also became pregnant.

Luckily the experiment worked. Soon there were three babies in the dealerships at the same time. In addition to Khan's daughter, Brylee, Finance Manager Melissa Alyas brought her son, Carter, and Contract Clerk Rebecca Huber brought her son, Grant, to work.

Huber didn't have that option when her daughter, who is now 11, was a baby. This time around, "it was so reassuring to know I could see my kid myself and bond with him in the beginning more," she said.

The women didn't have to choose between their careers and their babies, she added. "We could come to work and still provide for our families and be productive members of the household."

Freeman and the mothers didn't know how customers or colleagues would react, but having the babies around created a positive atmosphere for both customers and dealership employees.

"Employees were over the moon for these babies," Freeman said. "It actually lifted their spirits. When [they] didn't make a sale or [they were] having a bad day, the employees would tell me that they would go in and pick up the babies and laugh and smile with them."

All the babies had birthday parties at the stores and their mothers' colleagues gave them presents during the holidays, Huber said.

"The general feeling in the dealership and how people took to [Brylee] was absolutely wonderful," Khan said.

In 2016, the Toyota and Lexus stores sold a combined 2,826 new vehicles and 1,734 used vehicles. Freeman never received a single customer complaint for having babies at the stores. One customer even asked to hold one of the babies during the F&I process.

The babies were "well-socialized," Freeman said. They didn't fuss much because they were accustomed to being around many people.

Khan said being in the dealership's environment was part of her daughter's routine. She had been in the stores since she was 6 weeks old, so being there was natural for her.

The three babies are all around 2 years old now and come to the stores only on occasion. But another F&I manager is pregnant. Another baby may make his or her dealership debut soon.

Baby steps
At Freeman Motors in California, employees can bring infants to work for one year. It helps the mother manage childcare and lifts employees' spirits.
You can reach Hannah Lutz at hlutz@crain.com

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