There's a significant "implementation gap" between what employers say about work/life policies and what they actually do. Regardless of the policies on the books, many workers face negative performance reviews or unfavorable job assignments when they take advantage of their benefits.
Despite a growing awareness among employers that a commitment to flexible workplaces and work/life balance helps them recruit and retain top talent -- an imperative in this tough economy -- it appears they're not walking the talk in the implementation phase.
A recent global survey by WorldatWork's Alliance for Work/Life Progress, Men and Work/Life Integration, reveals a troubling gap between leaders' beliefs about the importance of work/life balance and their behaviors at many organizations.
"We set out to study men and work/life integration, but instead uncovered workplace trends [impacting both genders similarly] showing employees suffer a variety of job repercussions for participating in work/life programs, even when their leaders insist they support the business value," says Kathie Lingle, executive director of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance.
"This conundrum can be so oppressive that some employees go underground, resorting to 'stealth maneuvers' for managing their personal responsibilities.
"The good news," she says, "is that 80 percent of employers around the globe avow support for family-friendly workplaces. The bad news is they are simultaneously penalizing those who actively strive to integrate work with their lives."
Some of the repercussions cited by employees include being overtly or subtly discouraged from using flexible work and other work/life programs, receiving unfavorable job assignments, receiving negative performance reviews, receiving negative comments from supervisors and being denied promotions.
The study was broken into four segments: developed countries (United States, United Kingdom and Germany), emerging countries (Brazil, China and India), gender and leadership roles. In the developed countries, the study found the following leadership attitudes:
* More than half of the surveyed managers think the ideal employee is one who is available to meet business needs regardless of business hours.
* Forty percent believe the most productive employees are those without a lot of personal commitments.
* Nearly one in three think employees who use flexible-work arrangements will not advance very far in their organization.
"While the HR department designs and administers work/life programs, it's the managers who have to implement them," says Rose Stanley, work/life practice leader for WorldatWork. "Closing the gap between what managers believe and how they behave will make every workplace a better place to work."
That implementation gap -- between what the employer has on the books pertaining to work/life policies and how those policies are being implemented by management -- is not new. It was one of the findings of a 2007 study by The Center for Work and Family at Boston College's Carroll School of Management.
"We noticed that, even at companies where this has been on the books for quite some time, employees didn't always feel free to take advantage of the policies," says Jennifer Fraone, the Center's assistant director.
"For many in HR," she says, "there's still a problem at the very top, in the form of CEOs rolling their eyes."
Fraone encourages HR leaders facing reluctance among other top leaders to "put this on the table for discussion" as soon as possible and do what it takes to "help promote the case for flexibility and show them what other companies are doing out there."
Also, she says, "start small; select a pilot and start with one department or one business unit and really have your HR staff work with the managers there." She also recommends HR leaders document and measure as much as they can in terms of satisfaction, attrition and productivity as the work/life project proceeds.
"Then, you can actually bring a story to the CEO and board" that they'll listen to, she says. You can also make the argument, she adds, "that if people feel their companies really support them and respect their work/life needs, it's good for branding and reputation."
Patrick Kulesa, global research director in New York-based Towers Watson's organizational survey practice, can attest to workers being stretched thin and top talent ready to jump ship for a lack of work/life balance.
In his organization's 2011 Talent Management and Reward Survey, 41 percent of U.S. working adults say they are bothered by excessive pressure in their jobs, 40 percent say their workload is excessive and 28 percent say it's very difficult to balance work and personal responsibilities.
"So, what is this telling us?" he says. "It's telling us employees will be persuaded away for flexibility and less stress. We have certainly seen the work/life issue correlate with turnover."
Granted, some positions require constant face time. Some positions simply aren't meant to be carried out outside an office or business site. In those cases, Kulesa says, "employers can be more creative in finding ways to alleviate stress by dividing up the workload and shuffling duties around."
Both Fraone and Kulesa stress the importance of manager training to enhance their understanding of, and response to, employees' work/life needs. Trust also must be discussed at length so managers can reach a comfort level with employee schedules that hardly resemble the 9-to-5 workday of yesteryear.
This is a difficult challenge. "Even the most financially successful companies are struggling with this [trust issue]," Kulesa says.
He recommends HR and top managers take a good, hard look at the messages their managers' behaviors are conveying.
"Even something as simple as when the managers are leaving work versus when the employees are leaving for work" can create huge credibility and satisfaction gaps, he says.
Granted, the managers may be heading home earlier than their subordinates simply to plug their computers back in, but it's imperative they understand how their behaviors, attitudes and actions "set an example," says Kulesa, "that they're either in this tough economy with the rest of them, or they're not."