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Feb 13, 2013

Not so long ago, a request for flexibility carried with it stigma and a hit to one’s career.

Today flex work is in the mainstream, and millions do it without apparent consequence.

Or do they?

Lisa Leslie and Colleen Manchester have thrown some cold water on this reassuring narrative. In a creative study (Flexible Work Practices: A Source of Career Premiums or Penalties?), these two University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management professors combined surveys of users and managers of those on flexible schedules with lab-based simulations to see if employees were likely to pay a career price for using flexible schedules.

It’ all about personal vs. productivity

The answer: it depends on your motivation. They found that managers tend to reward those who flex for productivity reasons and penalize those with requests for personal reasons. (I excerpt and summarize their findings in my FlexBulletin #75)

If they are right, and career penalties are an unintended consequence of a very desirable practice, how has this happened? And what can be done about it?

I would offer a simple explanation. Gains for the company don’t automatically translate into gains for the manager or credit for the employee. It comes down to the “business case.” The rapid diffusion of flexibility has been fueled by a business case heavy on WIIFC — What’s In It For the Company? PowerPoints abound with claims of recruitment, retention, real estate savings, productivity, business continuity. All true, but all enterprise gains.

The other two WIIFMs are far less compelling. The question What’s In It For the Manager? should be answered in collaborative sessions with the employee focused on how a different way of working could add operational value. But these are far less common than they should be. And productivity gains that might be realized and rewarded end up as random in both execution and impact.

All too often, the reason DOES matter

The employee is the initiator of most flex and always has an answer to the classic WIFFM – What’s in It For Me? Unfortunately, more often than not that answer is a personal one. While great benefits of flexible schedules might accrue to both company and manager, and the employee might ultimately generate them, the typical manager is looking for “signals of commitment.”

Absent a deliberate process, it is the commitment to personal life that stands out to managers and others who decide on rewards, development and advancement. If the research is correct, leading with a personal reason rather than a productivity plan is a formula for career slowdown.

What can be done to address this problem? While the politically correct thing to say on the path to flexibility these days is that “the reason doesn’t matter,” it is far too often all that matters.

For better or worse, fair or unfair, employees who want to avoid any career penalties need to lead their requests with productivity rather than the personal. And their companies and managers need to insist and assist on this.

It needs to be more than just a personal payoff

The emphasis needs to be on WIIFU – What’s In It For Us? True collaboration is imperative in the interest of schedules that maximize business outcomes and employee satisfaction.

Yet of the thousands of employee flexibility proposals I have read, 95 percent focus on personal payoff and the rest on vague business gains. If I were the manager reviewing these “business proposals,” I’d send them back for revision or want to sit down and negotiate a better deal.

But managers almost never do these things. They seem to sign off on any proposal and then harbor who knows what opinion of the employee’s commitment. As the study suggests, employees are by default setting themselves up for the penalties that tend to attach to personal life requests. And most managers collude.

Without strong expectations for business-beneficial collaboration, rigorous training and measurable processes, that won’t change. And everyone will pay an unnecessary price.