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Is your company using its flexible working policy to punish you?

How some companies use their flexible working policy to hold back the career development of employees who use it


Flexible working is increasingly becoming the norm in American work environments.


Parents rely on their company’s flexible working policies in their dual roles as an employee (or as a manager) and a parent.


It’s essential to some parents that they be able to leave work a bit early.  Or work from home if their kid is sick.  Or if their daycare closes.


And that’s a perfect arrangement in theory.  But a pair of new studies find that even companies with flexible working policies in place can hold back employees for using the very policies intended to keep their work-life balance manageable.


Some companies are more explicit than others in skirting their own flexible working policies.


The most explicit companies will still hold employees accountable for unreturned 11PM emails.  Other companies will offer that promotion to another, child-free, employee.


Other companies are more subtle.  Promotions are denied.  Promises are unkept.  And you get dirty looks from colleagues.


No matter how explicit an organization is in its own workplace flexibility shaming, employees notice.


Researchers at Sociological Perspectives and Community, Work, & Family have coined this impact as “workplace flexibility bias.”


They also use the term to describe situations in which employees are unlikely to advance at their organization if they take leave or work flexibly.


They find that employees who believe workplace flexibility bias exists in their career are also less happy professionally.  And those employees are more likely to leave their job.

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The bias against workplace flexibility increases absenteeism.  It also leads to increased depressive symptoms.   It also leads to increased minor health problems.


Felxibility bias especially impacts working mothers.  According to an article by the study’s authors in the Harvard Business Review, moms are often given less-demanding, lower-paying positions.


The researchers also found that men who do not take leave and do not work flexibly are harmed.  And when they work in environments where this type of flexibility bias exists, they feel the same effects.


“We think employees generally do not like working for organizations that penalize people for having lives outside of work,” the study states. “They don’t feel supported, and they feel a lack of control over their schedules.”


Flexible work situations are increasing across the US.  But having a flex work policy on paper isn’t enough.  Companies also need to pay attention to the message they send to employees who use their flexible working options.


Employers should have formal policies tracking how many people use their flex benefits.  And if workers aren’t utilizing flexible working policies, odds are the working environment is contributing to flexibility bias.


We have a long way to go to improve the flexible working environment in the US.  Companies need to make sure that their flex policies are not only being used, but that their use is encouraged and respected, not punished.