Progressive HR departments have been on the workplace flexibility bandwagon for years now as employers try to recruit and retain top talent. The best and brightest will be productive, loyal and creative contributors if they have time to tend to what’s important in their lives outside of the workplace, the thinking goes. Recently, though, headlines are warning of the stigma of flexibility—a fear among employees that they will do their careers irreparable harm by taking advantage of employer flexibility programs.
Reports in The New York Times and other publications highlight research showing a stigma attached to workers who use an employer’s flexibility initiatives—policies allowing flexible schedules, telecommuting, job sharing, etc. A June 14 Times article points to the 2012 National Study of Employers from the Families and Work Institute. That study found that between 2005 and 2012, employers had increased the number of ways workers could manage when and where they work. But employers also had cut back on policies such as career breaks and allowing employees to go from part time to full time and back again.
An article in the 2013 winter edition of Rotman Magazine, a publication from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, reported that studies show more U.S. employers adopting flexibility programs, but not so many employees are using them.
“According to a recent study, 79 percent of U.S. firms allow some of their employees, and 37 percent allow all or most, to periodically change starting or quitting times,” the Rotman article states. “But while flexibility programs have become widespread, their usage rates remain low: only 11 percent of the full-time workforce has a formal agreement with their employer to vary their work hours, while another 18 percent have an informal agreement.”
Flexibility merely “shelf paper”?
The authors of the article—Joan Williams of the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law; Mary Blair-Loy of the University of California, San Diego; and Jennifer Berdahl of the Rotman School of Management—say it’s career worries that hold employees back. The authors report that employees who actually use flexibility policies often see lower pay, less favorable performance evaluations, and fewer promotions.
“As a result, some flexibility programs appear to be merely ‘shelf paper’—offered for public relations reasons but accompanied by a tacit message that workers use them at their peril,” the Rotman article states.
Men and women both face flexibility stigma, but it differs by gender. “Men who fail to demonstrate work devotion, by requesting family leave or workplace flexibility, are typically seen as failing in their role as men,” the Rotman article states. “For women, the flexibility stigma operates differently because the work devotion schema fits uneasily with cultural expectations for motherhood.”
The authors maintain that a woman requesting flexibility will be seen as a good mother and will be “sanctioned” for not being an ideal worker. “Research suggests that, regardless of a woman’s actual productivity, motherhood status per se triggers a presumed inability to meet the work devotion mandate—an assumption that is often called the ‘maternal wall bias.’”
The stigma associated with workplace flexibility carries questions about legal risks. An article in the June issue of the Journal of Social Issues reports on research into flexibility stigma. The article’s abstract points out that “American workplace law prohibits employment decisions based on gender stereotypes and forbids retaliation against employees who take certain job-protected family leaves.” The report contends that flexibility stigma “is rooted in gender stereotypes” and therefore may be fodder for discrimination lawsuits.
Whether any stigma associated with use of flexibility programs rises to the level of discrimination depends on each situation, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance on best practices for workers with caregiving responsibilities.
Here are a few of the practices recommended by the EEOC:
- Be aware of and train managers about the legal obligations that affect treatment of workers with caregiving responsibilities.
- Develop, disseminate, and enforce an equal employment opportunity policy that addresses conduct that might constitute unlawful discrimination against caregivers.
- Ensure managers comply with the organization’s work-life policies.
- Respond to complaints of caregiver discrimination and protect against retaliation.