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The Future of Work

How Flexible Hours Can Harm Employees As Much As It Helps Them

The "morning bias" may cause supervisors to look down on workers with later start times.

[Image: Flickr user E. I. Sanchez]

President Obama, nice boss that he is, wants you to stroll into work whenever you please.

All right, that's not entirely true. But at the White House Summit on Working Families this week, Obama did encourage employers to provide more flexibility—especially when it comes to family leave and childcare. As a first step toward that goal, the president outlined a policy for federal employees to request flexible work arrangements "without fear of retaliation."

It's hard to imagine any workers anywhere opposing that idea. Employees love workplace flexibility, and employers should, too, since it's linked with increased productivity and higher job satisfaction. But what if the worker "retaliation" that Obama intends to outlaw occurs unintentionally? Some new behavioral evidence suggests that some bosses will harbor biases against employees with flexible work schedules without even realizing it.

Take the issue of starting and quitting times. Flexibility here is a great perk—especially for households with two working parents—but U.S. employers don't do a great job granting it. While 81% of organizations allow some employees to periodically have flexible start and stop times, only 27% allow most or all employees to do so. And large organizations (more than 1,000 workers) tend to grant less flexible hours than small ones.

Via "Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility," White House Council of Economic Advisors (June 2014)
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So the type of improved flexibility proposed by Obama might be a great benefit. The problem is that changing the rules doesn't change employer perceptions, and employees who arrive late to work tend to have a bad reputation—even if they perform just as well in their job. In a new study set for publication in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers at the University of Washington have labeled this negative stereotype the "morning bias."

"We suggest that supervisors exhibit a pervasive morning bias and stereotype employees with late start times as less conscientious than employees with early start times," they write. "These perceptions in turn lead to lower performance ratings for employees with late start times."

In one experiment, the researchers asked test participants to assume the role of a manager at a company giving an employee a performance evaluation. Some participants read descriptive profiles of an employee who gets to work at 7 a.m. and leaves at 3 p.m. Others read about a worker who keeps hours from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Both workers put in 8 hours, and the two employees also had identical records on all other objective performance measures.

These profiles simulated a flexible office environment, with employees arriving early or late as they see fit, but the evaluations suggested it wasn't an equal one. Test participants in the late-start group rated their workers as significantly less conscientious than participants in the early-start group—despite the other similarities. That perception also influenced job performance ratings assigned to each of the fictional employees.

So in the eyes of a boss, a late-arriving worker may be no different from a bad worker. Fake managers weren't the only ones to feel this way. In a separate analysis, conducted on real supervisor-employee pairs, the researchers found the same thing. All else being equal, supervisors gave employees with late start times lower performance ratings, as well as lower "conscientiousness" ratings, than workers who arrived early.

In other words, taking advantage of a flexible schedule can put employees at a disadvantage come evaluation time. The results seem like bad news for the prospect of workplace flexibility "without fear of retaliation." But there was one important catch in both tests. When supervisors were late arrivers themselves (or, in the case of fake supervisors, when participants simply considered themselves evening people), the "morning bias" disappeared.

Via "Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility," White House Council of Economic Advisors (June 2014)
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That nuance should provide workers some hope. Employees can't exactly pick their jobs based on whether their boss is a morning or night person, but simply making supervisors aware of these biases could be enough to mitigate any impact on worker evaluations. Best Buy tested out this technique a few years ago, telling one corporate headquarters to embrace flexible hours so long as the work got done, and found lower turnover as a result.

Then again, the company cancelled its flexible program in 2013.

Encouraging such programs is precisely the point of Obama's new workplace agenda. There's a great deal of employee well-being at stake, and perhaps even some company productivity. But the evidence suggests that for the initiative to succeed it will have to do more than just promote the flexible office outcomes we expect. It will have to account for the ones we don't.

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