Kill stigma before it kills your flex work arrangements

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Beware the silent killer of flexible working arrangements for parents, a study from Rice University and the University of California, San Diego, has shown. Employees who reported “flexibility stigma” for parents in their offices are less likely to be satisfied at their jobs and more likely to be inclined to leave, regardless of whether they were parents themselves.

“The majority of parents are in the workforce today, yet the expectations and arrangements of work have stayed more or less the same as they were post-World War II,” says Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice and the study's lead author. “We imagine that the effects of flexibility stigma on job satisfaction and employee turnover might be even more counterproductive in professional workplaces that have less schedule control.”

Study co-author Mary Blair-Loy, an associate professor of sociology at UC San Diego, noted that the turnover cost would also affect companies’ bottom lines. “Workplaces where this bias exists are more likely to have a toxic culture that hurts the entire department, not only in terms of work-life balance but also retention and job satisfaction,” she says, although whether it could be attributed to correlation or causation was unclear.

While dedication to work may seem productive, it can be equally harmful, says Blair-Loy, especially when it undermines strategic policies like flexible work. “Work devotion is useful for employers because it helps motivate senior management, but is destructive to people trying to care for family members,” she says.

A February study by the Flex+Strategy Group found that of those who do most of their work out of the office, 71% were men, and only about half were parents. And those that did most of their work in the office were significantly more likely to say they didn’t use flexible working options because of fear it could damage their careers or reputations.

In 2009, Kimberly-Clark found that women were struggling to rise to the top ranks in the company, and employee surveys revealed a stigma. Over the past five years, they combatted the issue, and raised the percentage of women on the executive level from 19% to 26% last year. Here’s how they did it, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Making flexibility opt-out, not opt-in Kimberly-Clark found that female employees in China were quitting because of long commutes which kept them away from family. In response, managers made the start time across the office 10am, so that working mothers could avoid rush-hour traffic. But making the start time later across the board ensured that nobody could feel stigmatized for being the odd one out that arrives later.

Executives should take the lead The stigma surrounding the company’s “FlexWork” program was never completely eliminated until a number of vice-presidents used it – a key signal to lower-level employees, Kimberly-Clark’s vice-president for global diversity and inclusion Sue Sears says.

Craft solutions specific to each office Kimberly-Clark took a slightly varied approach with each office it had. For instance, in the Middle East, where its maternity leave policy was much stingier than its competitors, the policy was expanded. But in the US, employees were better educated about the FlexWork program.

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