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The Flexibility Bias

A new study shows workplace bias against those who use flexible-work arrangements -- often for child-care needs -- may increase employee dissatisfaction even among those who don't have children. But can HR help to eradicate such bias within an organization?

Thursday, April 17, 2014
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As any parent knows, balancing the demands of work and family can be a struggle. But, as those without children would also tell you, they also face demands that pull them in multiple directions -- whether related to caring for aging parents or other relatives, participating in volunteerism, continuing education, training for marathons or any range of important personal pursuits.

Those other drivers of the need for flexible schedules, though, do not result in the same kind of stigma as the flexibility needs driven by childcare, says Erin Cech, lead author of a recent study titled

"Consequences of Flexibility Stigma Among Academic Scientists and Engineers," which http://www.hreonline.com/images/460683687flexibilitybiasL.jpgexamines the concept of "flexibility stigma" at one university.

"What the flexibility bias literature shows us is that using work/life policies for other kinds of reasons -- such as for a personal health-related reason or even using it to do things like training for a marathon, are not stigmatized in the same way as taking leave for family care-related responsibilities."

Flexibility stigma is rampant in corporate America and is an interest of Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston. The term relates to the stigma that is attached to workers, particularly professional workers, who have responsibilities at home that lead them to work flexible hours. Even when those flexible hours are provided through policy and seemingly supported in the workplace, stigma exists.

While the study focused on a single university, the results, say Cech and other experts, are readily applicable to other work settings, offering insights, opportunities and, perhaps, warning signs for HR professionals concerned about attracting, retaining and engaging a productive staff.

Carol Sladek, the work/life consulting lead at Aon Hewitt in Chicago says the issue isn't really "new." But, she adds; "What I think the study is saying is that there are certainly cultures out there where there isn't really an openness to workplace flexibility. And we certainly see that across industries; we certainly see that outside higher education."

In her study, says Cech, STEM faculty were selected because they were "very close to being what the ideal worker norm says a worker should be and they also have a lot of schedule control." They work long hours and they're very dedicated to their work, but they also have a lot of control over when and where they work, she says.

"We looked at whether or not people thought there was a flexibility stigma within their academic departments," she says. "Overall, what we found is that those individuals who work in departments where there is a flexibility stigma are less likely to want to remain in their jobs, have lower job satisfaction and feel like they have less work/life balance than people in departments where there is less of a flexibility stigma." An important finding was that these negative impacts existed even for those who did not have children themselves.

Would these findings translate into other environments? Cech says yes. "We believe that these kinds of consequences would be similar in other places." And, she notes, there has been a lot of research done around the topic. Interestingly, much of that research indicates that even when there are policies in a workplace that support flexibility, there is still a fear of stigma.

"What this suggests is that the policies themselves are not enough," says Cech. "Workers need to feel free and open to use those policies without stigmatization."

That raises an important question: What role can HR play in ensuring that this open environment exists within their organizations? They can be a driving force behind the culture.

"For our book Rapid Retooling, we researched companies that succeeded by changing faster than the pace of change," says Lawrence Polsky, managing partner at the global team consulting firm PeopleNRG.com, in Princeton, N.J.

Polsky says a key success factor is creating a leadership culture of work/life integration.

"At the leadership levels," he says, "they get their job done in whatever schedule works. Google is the extreme example -- you can eat, exercise, get your clothes cleaned and even sleep there. But most companies can't afford that. Yet other mid-size companies go to great lengths to make sure they hire the right leaders: leaders that are comfortable and will succeed in the pace or culture that exists in the company. It starts with hiring and being very clear about the demands of the work."

For HR professionals, this represents an opportunity to determine the needs and perspectives of their organizations and to take steps to develop a culture that provides the support their workforce requires when it comes to work/life balance.

The bottom line for HR, says Polsky, is this: "If you want to be a top performing company, aim for work/life integration. Be clear about the responsibilities and time commitments at hiring. Then, be flexible to allow people to get their jobs done in whatever way works for the employees, while maintaining focus on serving the customers."

There are two critical elements required in any organization to address issues of potential flexibility bias, says Sladek: Well-designed guidelines or policies, and strong managerial support. Managers need guidelines to help them address the requests they will receive from employees, and need to know how to respond to those requests.

"The second piece, which is probably even more important than establishing the guidelines," she says, "is really helping managers to embrace and embody workplace flexibility by providing them with education and training." The reality, she says, is that "the onus really does fall on them for making this successful -- they're the ones that are going to get requests from their employees; they're the ones that are going to have to work out whatever arrangement may or may not work for that person." And, they're the ones who are responsible for managing the satisfaction and engagement of all their staff members.

The burden -- and opportunity -- to minimize flexibility bias extends higher than mid-level managers, though. Even when policies exist and managers are approving flexible schedules for employees, there is often hesitance among some work groups to take advantage of these policies, because they may feel that such a step is "career limiting," says Sladek. In some organizations, she acknowledges, it is.

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Consequently, she says, HR needs to be sure that senior leaders are on board and supportive of these policies. "If you've got senior leaders that say, ‘Oh, that sounds good and I read about that in journals but, not on my watch!,' then your organization will probably never really truly embody that flexibility," she says.

"That doesn't mean that some elements of your organization won't take you up on it, but it makes it a lot less effective in terms of being a tool that you can use to drive productivity and results," she says.

The barriers to encouraging and supporting work/life balance can be subtle, but impactful, says Cynthia Thomas Calvert, a lawyer, researcher and consultant and president of Baltimore-based Workforce 21C.

"Employees see how others are treated, and if they see flexible workers being marginalized, denied opportunities, passed over for promotion, given negative evaluations, and the like, then they realize that management is not supportive of employees," she says.

Bias can be fueled by managers' tolerance of negative actions or statements of other staff members, she notes, such as a manager who does not put a stop to negative comments such as "Must be nice to get to leave early every day," or "Don't expect me to do your work while you're out playing."  

Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, in Boulder, Colo., agrees, emphasizing that their actions speak louder than words -- or policies.

"If the C-suite is regularly coming in at 7 a.m. and staying until 8 p.m., missing their kids' events, showing up to work even while sick, etc., they are establishing an unhealthy behavioral example for the entire company," Steere says, because ambitious employees will emulate those at the top.

"Employees look to the top for ‘permission' and for understanding what is or isn't OK," Steere says. "If the CEO leaves at 10:30 a.m. to go to the kindergarten Thanksgiving play, he or she sets the tone that family is important and that it's OK to occasionally step out in the middle of the day to keep life in balance."

With the influx of Generation Y, or millennials, into the workplace, and the long-anticipated exodus of baby boomers on the horizon, organizations will be increasingly concerned about attracting, retaining and engaging a workforce that increasingly values balance in their lives.

"In 2014, that's why we're looking at workplace flexibility," says Sladek. "It's that win-win to try to find the right balance for the employee, but also using that flexibility to make sure that we really can get what we need out of that employee -- that they are as productive as they can be and that we really generate that loyalty that we want from them."

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