Workplace Flexibility Stigma
Not an Equal Opportunity Offender

Professor Kimberly Elsbach conducts research on the acquisition and maintenance of organizational images, identities and reputations. She teaches negotiation skills in competitive business environments. Elsbach has published extensively on organizational reputations and controversies and has studied the impacts of telecommuting and how the work place has transformed.

Earlier this year, I wrote about “face time bias” in response to a study I conducted with Daniel Cable and Jeff Sherman, “Why Showing Your Face Matters,” where we found that employees who work remotely may be viewed less positively than their in-office colleagues. These findings suggest that remote workers may end up getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their colleagues in the office — even if they work just as hard and just as long.

It was with interest, then, that I read an article in the New York Times, “The Unspoken Stigma of Workplace Flexibility,” where the author explains that men who seek work flexibility may be penalized more severely than women, because they’re viewed as more feminine, deviating from their traditional role of fully committed breadwinners.

Currently, the conversation around gender parity in leadership is in full swing, and many consider the equal distribution of household duties to be a key factor in moving the needle. “Work life balance” will continue to be a women’s issue as long as they work eight hour days at the office, only to return home and work another shift at home: cooking dinner, cleaning the house, and doing laundry.

The findings outlined in the article suggest that our old stereotypes about the role of men and women are still very much in place. One possible outcome is that men, having learned of the additional “flexibility stigma” against them, would be less likely to take advantage of flexible solutions. Unfortunately, this would mean forcing them back into their box as the traditional breadwinner, compelling their partners to take a step back and sacrifice their own career goals.

As men become less likely to take advantage of flex time, women will follow suit as they compete against men. Women again find themselves in the midst of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario: If you do take flex time, you’re confirming a stereotype, but if you don’t take it, then you may actually perform worse at your job because there are too many stresses in your life.

The author puts it perfectly: “For women to be able to take advantage of these arrangements without judgment, men need to use them freely, too.”

What can we do to avoid the negative implications of this bias? Our article provides a full outline of actionable tactics, which I’ve paraphrased below.

Tips For Managers

  • Don’t use trait-based performance evaluations. Trait-based evaluations measure employees’ on factors like “leadership ability” or “teamwork.” Evidence suggests that these subjective evaluations are subject to rater biases (such as face time bias) and do not help employees understand what to change.
  • As much as possible, do use objective output measures in performance evaluations. Managers who implement telecommuting and flexible hours should revise their performance appraisals to measure mostly objective outputs, such as number and type of projects completed or expert evaluations of project quality.
  • Consider work arrangements when using peer feedback. Many organizations use “360-degree” appraisals in which employees are rated by peers and subordinates as well as managers. However, coworkers and subordinates may be just as prone to unconscious biases as are managers.

Tips For Employees

  • Make regular phone or e-mail status reports. As an employee, make sure you never “go dark.” Email and call colleagues regularly throughout the day so that they know you’re working from home.
  • Be extra visible when in the office. If you spend a lot of time working at home, it’s tempting to spend time at work catching up with coworkers. However, this might signal that you spend your time working at home in a similar fashion, chatting on the phone or wasting time in other ways. When in the office, stay focused, and point out when you’re missing lunch or breaks to meet a specific deadline. Lastly, make it a priority to meet with your supervisor so that you can connect with him or her in person.
  • Be immediately available at home. Make sure you respond quickly to phone calls and emails when working from home. Delaying a response could give the impression that you’re unavailable or that you’re unfocused.
  • Get others to talk you up. Identify key people in the company and make yourself known to them. Carve out time to check in with them and let them know what you’re working on. They’ll remember you when it comes time for your performance review, and they’ll be more likely to talk about you and work with your supervisor
  • E-mail or voice mail early or late in the day. If you’re working past regular office hours, let that be known by sending a few emails or voicemails at the end of your day to make others aware of the long hours you’re putting in.

Executive Education at UC Davis is uniquely positioned to create custom programs around this topic. The UC Davis Graduate School of Management has a long history of supporting gender balance and women in business. We were ranked No. 1 worldwide for the highest percentage of female faculty members by The Financial Times, and every year we publish a Census of Women Business Leaders in California. Contact Wendy Beecham, Managing Director, for more information.