My Thoughts

Flexibility Stigma. Don’t think you’re past it…

The 2015 Women in the Workplace Study shared some interesting news:  many companies are offering flexible work options, including telecommuting, job shares, and part time options, but very few people are participating.  Part time work had one of the lowest participation rates at just 2%, and the study goes on to say “More than 90 percent of both women and men believe taking extended family leave will hurt their careers.”

This comes as no surprise to me.  Part time work, reduced schedules, and work from home flexibility have been around for quite some time now, but engaging in any of these options beyond the occasional work from home day is career suicide in most cases.  Flexible career options may be available and even promoted at many companies, but you’ll be informally punished for partaking.  This phenomenon was termed “Flexibility Stigma” by Joan C. Williams, founding director of the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.  And in her recent book, Unfinished Business, Anne Marie Slaughter tackles the same point – opting for flexible options can significantly alter your career trajectory, and not for the better.

When’s the last time you thought someone on a part-time schedule or reduced schedule was headed for the C-suite?

What everyone’s thinking:  Yup – let’s face it.  32 hour weeks are for moms and dads that want to earn money but still need to take care of their kids.  They’re not serious about the job or a promotion.  If they were, they would have stayed on a full time schedule where they can dedicate their energy more appropriately towards corporate goals and readying themselves for promotions.  

There are ways to get yourself into a part time role or a reduced schedule, as I discussed in this earlier post, but beware that this stigma is alive and well.

Is working from home full time a good idea?

Sure – but “out of sight, out of mind” still plays a huge role here.  As much as we’d like to think that technology has negated the need to be in the office all the time, a lot of information physically disseminates though the office.  When you’re not physically there ever, even if you have an amazingly supportive manager, no one will know who you are.  It’s harder to be a part of ad hoc conversations.  And you never want to be the guy in reference when someone asks “What does he do again?”.  Unless you are field based or your company has over 50% of it’s workforce in mobile or work from home positions – don’t even go here.  Once a week is probably the most you can get away with without career repercussions.

But surely those of us that crave these flexible options would see past this.  The reality is, flexible options can work and not impact our careers, but only if a majority of the company and the company leadership also participate.  Even if leadership participates in a token way, it helps.  What does participation look like?  How can you be sure that a company really embraces the flexible options they are offering and will not penalize you career-wise?  Find out the following:

  • Are other employees actually using the flexibility options?  Which ones are they using? (Work From Home, reduced schedules, flex hours, part-time, leaves of absence, sabbatical)
  • Find people at your target company that are using the flexible options and find out how they feel about it. Even better, find someone not involved with your hiring decision so that you can be candid and open about your questions.
  • Ask people you know at the company if leadership also uses the flexible options.  Does leadership ever schedule personal appointments during business hours and make it clear to their teams that they do?
  • Find out if the company very secretive about where employees are at any given time.  For example, do many team members not know if their manager is in the office or traveling and are the assistants awkwardly secretive about executive schedules?
  • Finally, ask your recruiter to put you in touch with at least two people that have utilized flexible schedules and still managed to grow professionally in their jobs.  Be forgiving it their paths took longer then expected.  Although less than ideal, it’s still better than no growth at all.

There is no fool-proof way to know for sure, and there will still be some penalties to your career until flexibility stigma goes the way of the dinosaurs.  But at least you’ll know what you’re getting into.

Have Kids, Will Work


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