The Flextime Fraternity
The importance of a man's job -- as well as his gender -- works in his favor when he asks for a flextime arrangement, according to new research. But that's not the case for women, and experts say HR needs to train managers to seek a better balance.
By Larry Keller
It's generally assumed that women, in particular, benefit from flexible scheduling as they balance the demands of work and childcare.
But a new academic study titled "Ask and Ye Shall Receive? The Dynamics of Employer-Provided Flexible Work Options and the Need for Public Policy," published in the June issue of the Journal of Social Issues, has found that professional men are more apt to have requests for flextime approved, especially if it's to advance their careers.
Those workers most in need of flexible scheduling -- women with low-status jobs and childcare concerns -- are among the least likely to be allowed such an accommodation, say the study's authors, professors Victoria L. Brescoll at Yale University and Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas-Austin, and Harvard University senior researcher Alexandra Sedlovskaya. That has potential ramifications for employee engagement and retention.
In the study, 76 managers -- including 31 women -- were assigned to read one of eight vignettes about an employee requesting a compressed work schedule that would enable him or her to continue working 40 hours a week, but have two afternoons off. Sometimes the fictional employee was male, and sometimes female. In some scenarios, the employee was a chief pharmacist (high status), and in others a pharmacy clerk (low status). And in some vignettes the worker sought the compressed schedule to take professional development classes, while for others the reason was related to family care.
Managers were more likely to approve the flextime request of high-status male employees who said it was for career development than they were for high-status women making the same request, the study found.
"Men sort of have this halo -- they're not going to have babies and they're not going to leave us," says Glass, who is vice president of the American Sociological Association.
The high-status male employees also were more apt to have this request approved than were male employees in low-status jobs. But when childcare was cited as the reason, it was more likely to be viewed favorably if the men were in low-status rather than high-status positions.
Support for men requesting flextime for childcare reasons was no less than for women. For women employees, neither their job status nor their reasons for seeking flextime affected managers' decisions to grant their requests. "It was as if their gender trumped all else," Glass says.
Rose Stanley, work/life practice leader at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based WorldatWork, wonders if the high-status male employees fared so well because the survey respondents viewed flextime as a perk. "It's not a fluffy perk. It can be a strategic business model," she says.
[In a 2012 Families and Work Institute survey, 37 percent of respondents whose employers had work/life initiatives in place such as flextime cited employee retention as the reason why. That exceeded any other reason].
In a companion study, the university researchers presented one of the flextime vignettes from the first survey to 159 women and 84 men -- holding a managerial title was not a prerequisite of their participation.
This group was asked to imagine themselves as the employee in the scenario and estimate the likelihood they would receive flextime if they requested it. Female employees were more likely to believe that their request would be approved than were men. High-status male employees were most likely of all to believe their requests would be denied, although the opposite was true. And high-status female employees were the most inclined to think their requests would be approved.
Overall, a little more than half of the flextime requests were approved by the managers surveyed. Yet men and women alike were pessimistic about their chances for approval, the second survey found, and were therefore probably disinclined to request it. "I think they fear there will be harm to their careers," Glass says.
That, too, has potential repercussions in lower productivity and higher workforce turnover, Glass and her co-authors wrote. "Lower standards of living among children as a result of either labor force withdrawal or frequent job changes among their caregivers negatively affects the human capital of the next generation, and increases the search costs of firms seeking qualified workers."
Even if HR managers recognize the value of flextime, there can be a disconnect between them and workers' direct supervisors. Glass suggests that employers profile successful workers who have a flextime schedule.
"I think training managers is key," Stanley says. "They're the ones saying yes or no." Even if employers have a policy for allowing some flextime, the managers must buy into it "or it's going to fail … employees sense whether they can go in and ask. To train the employees as well [as managers] gives them a sense of what they're allowed to do."
A WorldatWork survey conducted three years ago found that roughly eight in 10 employers with a flexibility program offered no training to managers or employees on how to best succeed with it.
Nobody is benefitting as much as they should, says Kenneth Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at the Families and Work Institute. "What we end up with is nobody is getting the flex. Men don't ask for the flex and women are denied," he says. "I'm wary of having a gender battle over work flex when the data suggests nobody is getting an advantage. The question is how we fix this system for everybody rather than one group over another."
Some flextime arrangements are made by managers in secret, Matos says. "A lot of times, organizations feel if they give it to one person they have to give it to others. They don't want to have a conversation with the person who can't have it."
There is a solution, in Matos' view. "It's not any individual accommodation that should be focused on," he says. Doing so results in a hierarchy of needs – weighing one worker's desire for flextime for childcare against another's for elder care versus still another's wish to take a work-related course. "It's an unavoidable instinct to ask is that [request] really worth it."
Instead, he suggests making these decisions based solely on which jobs aren't feasible for flextime, rather than the personality of the individuals or their reasons for the request.
Stew Friedman sees it differently. He's a practice professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and author of the forthcoming book Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family.
"There's a great deal of resistance because our way of thinking about such programs is in terms of zero-sum," he says. "The reason or rationale for any variation in standard work practice . . . has to be explicit."
Employees need to be taught skills that will better enable them to make a successful flextime request, Friedman says. That means presenting it to managers as a low-risk experiment that may provide multiple benefits to employee and employer. For the employee, for example, that might include less stress. For the employer: more productivity.
HR professionals should frame the work-life challenge as a leadership challenge aimed at determining what employees need to integrate different parts of their lives, including work, and how best to do so, Friedman says. "There is no one-size-fits-all. I think that's the model and the mindset HR leaders should adopt."