‘Flexibility stigma’ hampering work-life balance programs: Expert

Flexible work arrangements carry hidden — and overt — career penalties
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/13/2014

In theory, it seems like a great option: Workplace flexibility policies create better work-life balance, allowing employees more control over their time.

But, in reality, flex options are not as widely used as one might expect.

“We thought that once these (flexibility programs) were introduced, there would be a flood of people wanting to adopt these kinds of schedules,” said Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

But that flood of people never came, for one simple reason: There often is a not-so-subtle stigma attached to using flexibility programs, said Williams.

“I hear all the time that the reason people don’t adopt flexible work arrangements is that they’re worried about the stigma,” she said.

That “flexibility stigma” — a term Williams coined to describe the trend — can result in career penalties, such as being passed over for promotion, and reputational penalties in regards to the way an employee is viewed by co-workers and supervisors.

While these penalties can be subtle, they are often pretty blatant — particularly for men, she said.

“It is very overt,” said Williams. “We hear all the time, ‘Oh, bias is now subtle.’ Well, it just isn’t true. Not this kind of bias — this kind of bias is often really overt.”

Studies on the issue have consistently shown employees fear the stigma and penalties they associate with flex arrangements, according to Stephen Sweet, visiting fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.

“If you actually avail yourself of using flexibility, the job erodes to being the less rewarding tasks and more of the housekeeping tasks — the work that has to be done rather than the discretionary work that many employees find fulfilling,” he said. “(So) employees oftentimes censor themselves from asking for flexible work. Sometimes it’s because the culture within the organization sends a very clear message that using flexibility is going to be penalized, or that it’s just not what people do.”

In many cases, that fear of being penalized is well-founded, said Williams, who organized researchers to study the issue. They found there are prevalent negative attitudes toward workers with flexible arrangements.

“There is a very serious stigma for men as well as women,” she said. “In both cases, it’s very strong and, in both cases, the flexibility stigma is a form of gender bias.”

Gender discrimination

The stigma and penalties associated with flexible work actually stem from systemically entrenched stereotypes about gender roles, according to Williams.

For women, the stigma is tied to workplace attitudes around motherhood.

“Adopting a flexible work arrangement makes people focus on the fact that you’re a mother who is limiting her hours because of motherhood. And so the flexibility stigma is very strong for women because it triggers the strongest form of gender bias there is in today’s workplace,” she said.

But the stigma for men is even harder to overcome, said Williams.

“Flexibility stigma for men is even stronger, actually. But it operates quite differently,” she said, adding that studies indicate the stigma is a different form of gender discrimination.

“(Studies have shown) men who requested flexibility were viewed much less favourably than men who didn’t. They were viewed as poor workers, and the poor worker stigma was completely explained by the fact that these men were seen as ‘too feminine’… They were seen as having feminine personality characteristics and, therefore, were seen as less deserving of various organizational rewards, like promotions.”

Stigma can come from variety of sources

So is this stigma coming primarily from the management level or does it stem from the collectively-held stereotypes of peers and coworkers? Often, it can come from both, said Williams — or sometimes, neither.

“It depends — sometimes it’s not coming from anywhere. Sometimes it doesn’t exist,” she said.

“There are organizations where there really isn’t much of a flexibility stigma. So it’s not impossible to correct this... Where it exists, it can come from supervisors, it can come from managers or peers, or both.”

Perhaps the most significant barrier is when the stigma is coming from managers, according to Laura Croucher, national lead of people and change solutions at KPMG Canada in Toronto.

Through KPMG’s involvement with WORKshift Canada, a social enterprise advocating for flexible work solutions, Croucher has found managers are the ones who set the tone for flexible work.

“The biggest barrier really is our front-line managers. The reason for that is, in many organizations, there’s a value to being seen… we’ve got to move from valuing being seen to valuing results,” she said.

“The challenge is that middle-managers or front-line managers haven’t necessarily had the training in terms of how to manage virtual teams and how to manage people virtually. And that requires new skills and different practices, so they need help in terms of their own learning and development in order to be able to institute this well.”

The issue is further complicated because managers really vary in terms of their openness to flexible work, said Sweet.

“When we start to think about managers’ willingness to support flexibility, that varies tremendously from work unit to work unit. So even if an organization has a policy that’s very supportive of flexibility, it can get censored on the manager’s desk, because they’re almost always the gatekeeper.”

Inform, educate team

Managers and senior leaders can make a big difference when it comes to how flexible work will be perceived, said Williams. If they don’t inform and educate their team and plan work processes effectively, it will usually foster resentment among the “flexible” worker’s co-workers.

“Often, this is just the result of bad HR practices. If you allow someone to go part-time (and) you don’t replace the hours and you dump those hours on their peers, guess what will happen? So some of the resentment just is a reflection of poor management of part-time schedules,” she said.

“This is one of the reasons it’s important to design flexible work arrangements so they’re not available only for mothers — they’re available if you can make the business case for a flexible work arrangement.”

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