Beware of workplace flexibility programs. They can be hazardous to your career. Take them, and you signal that you are more interested in your family than your work. Wave goodbye to future promotions.
That has been the traditional thinking, fuelled by the climate of shareholder value in a go-go era and the depressing reports about lack of women in executive positions. But Richard Ivey School of Business Professor Alison Konrad has been somewhat leery of that conventional caution against taking advantage of workplace flexibility programs, since there are alternative theories that suggest it could be a positive decision.
And now she has some solid facts to back that hunch. A major research study, with her then-graduate student Yang Yang, found that in Canada, people who took advantage of workplace flexibility programs, on average, were more likely to get promoted than those who don't. That's so stunning, contrary to our beliefs, that it bears repeating: Opt for a compressed schedule or working from home or some other workplace flexibility measure and you might be helping rather than hindering your chances for promotion.
"If your employer is offering some workplace flexibility program and you can benefit, you should request it," she says in an interview. "You are not benefiting by not taking it. You may avoid a short-term stigma by not taking it. But over the long term, it pays off in promotions."
Prof. Konrad decided to undertake her study after some research in hypothetical experimental situations that showed managers hesitated to promote someone who had taken a work-life benefit. One particularly chilling study looked at managing directors of large accounting firms.
Those findings fit with theories of signalling and stigmatization. The person who asks for some relief from the normal approach is signalling apparent lack of commitment and will be stigmatized by bosses. Penalties will follow, in the form of a lack of promotions.
But there are other, contrary theories. One is called conservation of resources, and suggests that taking advantage of the workplace program increases an individual's resources to handle the job and cope with life. They can perform better, and over time, that will outweigh any negative stigma, and they will be rewarded with promotions. Another theory is the efficiency wage argument, which posits that after a raise an employee will work harder to show gratitude and keep the job.
The study involved data from Statistics Canada's Workplace and Employee Survey, and involved 6,500 women and 8,396 men. The 2001 survey asked if people had taken advantage of any one of seven different work-life interface benefits, and the researchers then studied whether people received promotions the next year. It was controlled for firm size, age, education, and annual earnings.
They found an overall, positive effect. People who used the work-life accommodations were 14 per cent more likely to get a promotion the next year than their equivalent counterparts who didn't use such programs. People who used an employee assistance program were 73 per cent more likely to get a promotion than those who didn't. However, using an elder care or child care benefit was not associated with subsequent promotion.
While the statistics are clear, because of the nature of the study – purely statistical – the reasons aren't. But she believes when people use the benefits morale increases, stress goes down, employees become more committed to the employer, and they will even take on extra discretionary work because they now have a better foundation on the home front. That fits with studies that show family is not a hindrance to work but helps – enriching our lives – and that more positive flavour spills over into the workplace.
She cautions that doesn't mean there is no stigma. "You may face a negative, short-term stigma from some people," she admits. But if you prove yourself by doing good work after the workplace accommodation, you'll be noticed. You also may show that you can work with less supervision if working from home, which is a plus in evaluating for promotion, and that you are highly dedicated.
Her message to employees: Go for it. To employers: If you're worried about employees who take the work-life programs, watch and you may find they appreciate the benefits and work harder, aided by the greater stability in their lives.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter