In the US, it’s a common expectation that workers be committed to their job above all else. It’s called the “ideal worker image,”and whether they admit it or not, companies reward people who embrace it. Boston University professor Erin Reid conducted in-depth interviews with employees about that expectation at an elite US consulting firm (anonymized and called “AGM”).
She tied that data to performance reviews and promotions to find out the real effects of a culture that expects 80-plus-hour work weeks in a recent paper published at Organization Science.
Reid found plenty who embraced that lifestyle, by sacrificing their personal lives, and were praised for it. But a small subset got ahead in a much more balanced way. They had a variety of strategies in place, called “passing” formally, that helped give the appearance of working just as hard while they preserved balance.
“I skied five days last week,” one consultant told Reid. “I took calls in the morning and in the evening but I was able to be there for my son when he needed me to be, and I was able to ski five days in a row.”
The firm didn’t know those were work, not vacation, days. Yet that consultant had the highest possible performance rating.
Honesty isn’t always the best policy in the workplace, it turns out. People who formally revealed a different attitude were punished.
One employee wanted to take three months of paternity leave, but cut that in half after a negative reaction from the company. Even after working 80-hour weeks the rest of year, “people still talked like I was out three months,” he told Reid. His performance rating fell and he didn’t get an expected promotion.
Just revealing a slightly different set of priorities had huge consequences. Women were more likely to request formal accommodations, and frequently saw negative consequences for their careers.
People who embraced the culture had an average performance rating of around 3 out of 4 (a four indicates a “star performer”), and were promoted at a rapid clip.
The employees who “passed” had ratings that were just as high, and were promoted just as, if not more quickly.
The 25 people (27% of men and 44.5% of women) who publicly expressed discontent or requested accommodation had average ratings below three, were less likely to be promoted, and were put on difficult projects. Eight of the 25 left within a year.
Not every environment is going to be as intense as this, but it’s instructive since managers have a bias toward the “ideal worker” construct in just about every industry.
So what did people who managed to both have a life and succeed do differently?
Over years, people cultivated local, repeat, and non-profit clients that made it possible for them to travel less, telecommute more and alter their work schedule. They worked more on internal firm projects and used the fundamental mobility of the job to work from home more.
By maneuvering within the firm and with clients, they created a better environment over time through informal negotiations rather than by formally requesting a different schedule. From the skiing consultant mentioned earlier: “No one knows where I am. Those boundaries are only practical with my local client base. Especially because we’re mobile, there are no boundaries.”
Another employee described becoming an expert and trusted advisor to pharmaceutical companies. Because they were highly concentrated in New Jersey, he could drive instead of taking overnight client meetings.
They were just as productive because they were strategic in how they worked, instead of conspicuously dropping everything to take last minute flights. And their success was dependent on the firm not really knowing how they’d restructured their schedule.
Many workers who didn’t publicly admit their differing priorities or desire for reduced schedules, did talk to their close colleagues. For a few, that led to informal changes in their work structure that paid major dividends without becoming common knowledge:
We kind of have a shared agreement as to what work–life balance is on our team. We basically work really closely with each other to make sure that we can all do that. A lot of us have young kids, and we’ve designed it so we can do that.We’ve really designed the whole business [unit] around having intellectual freedom, making a lot of money, [and] having work–life balance. It’s pretty rare. And we don’t get pushback from above because we are squaring that circle—from the managing partners— ’cause we are one of the most successful parts of the company. Most of the partners have no idea our hours are that light.
It’s far tougher for one person to create an environment where she has work-life balance. A group of people has much better luck.
Firms are hurting themselves and their employees by hewing to the ideal worker image. It promotes gender inequality, leads to a work style that’s pretty clearly inefficient and unnecessary, and leads employees to resort to deceit in order to spend time with their families.
When professor Reid reported her results to the firm, it responded that the men who chose to work less weren’t the sort they wanted, and asked how they might teach women to “pass,” according to her writeup of the study in the Harvard Business Review.