A lot of space, time and energy has been devoted to policies—both public and corporate—around women in the workplace. That makes sense given how much both public and company policy can either support or undermine the advancement of women and the health of families.
But I don’t think nearly enough attention gets paid to practice—that is, our collective and individual support for the policies that already exist to support workplace flexibility. We all know of companies that have great policies to support working families—generous leave, flextime options, part-time schedules —but nevertheless employ parents who leave in droves because the policies are never actually implemented, or because the people who do take advantage of them get sidelined. It’s easy to be cynical when this happens and conclude that the company never intended the policy to be used. That the executives are just looking to get credit for the policy without having to suffer any negative consequences, the thinking goes.
But let us for a moment assume that the company and its executives aren’t being cynical by enacting policies they don’t really support.
If we were to investigate all the moments when policy and practice get misaligned, I think the first place to look is executive disconnect and even hubris. Too many people in the C-Suite believe that if they say something is important then the rank-and-file will automatically understand that it’s important. Too often they fail to connect the policy to corporate goals in a way that makes it clear that the practice is important to success. Generally speaking, companies adopt family-friendly policies to attract and retain the most talented employees. That won’t happen if the company gets a reputation for not allowing those same employees to use family-friendly benefits. Even the PR benefits of a good policy will be undermined if employees to take to sites like Glassdoor to complain. When executives fail to connect these dots, is it any wonder that line managers fall back onto the practices that are more comfortable and familiar?
In fact, many companies have policies that create unintended disincentives to the practices around flexibility. For example, too many companies still calculate head-count by literally counting the number of heads that are on the books with benefits. If a company offers benefits to part-time workers (a great family-friendly practice!) then departments can end up feeling short-staffed if those part-time workers count as full-timers from a budgeting perspective. If the department head has discretion they will deny requests for part-time schedules—a practice they probably already resisted. Executives need to be proactive in supporting managers through training, development and aligning resources and outcomes. When they fail at any of these, the family-friendly policies are often the first things to fly out the window.
Also, when policies are not “fair” to everyone they will be much less widely implemented. For example, when flexible schedules are only available to parents it can create an “us” and “them” mentality that has a host of downstream implications for camaraderie and manager support. This can leave parents wary of accessing the policies for fear of resentment and even retribution. Those fears are not unfounded—research shows that people who ask for flexibility, even when the company explicitly offers it, are rated as lower performers than those who don’t. Work/life conflict doesn’t only happen to parents and everyone deserves to be able to access the flexibility they need to live a rich life. When companies extend these policies to everyone they reduce the stigma attached and derive more benefits in the form of attracting and retaining a more diverse workforce.
Of course, executives don’t always know if policies are being implemented and, if they aren’t, why. This data doesn’t show up in generic surveys about how workers feel about the corporate culture. If companies want to really understand if the policies are working as intended, they need to delve a bit deeper. Questions about culture and work/life fit should also be a standard question during exit interviews. The best employees will vote with their feet by heading to another company that they perceive as being a better work environment. It’s also crucially important to delve into why employees, particularly female employees, opt-out of the workforce. There are plenty of women (and, increasingly, a few men) who want to take some time away from their career to spend more time with their family. But there are any number of them who could have been retained if the company had a clear track record of supporting (not just offering) flexible work arrangements.
What’s more, executives are only part of a company—and only part of the problem. The rest of us are the other.
Ultimately, the policies of a given company are supported or undermined by the line managers. This effect works in both directions – the manager who rolls his eyes and sighs heavily any time someone on his team asks for a work-from-home day and the manager who looks the other way when someone works from home even when the official policies forbid it.
And why wouldn’t managers be supportive of these policies? There are a lot of reasons, but most boil down to two simple emotions: fear and prejudice. Managers at almost any company are under a lot of pressure to generate results. Policies that encourage flexibility—especially when they don’t seem to support managers in achieving results—can feel very threatening. Also, many managers, both men and women, got to their position without the benefit of family-friendly policies. They may resent new employees who come in and look to benefit from them. They may also feel bias toward workers who take advantage of these policies and see them as less committed to their job.The focus on policies that support women and families in the workplace needs to continue—there are still far too many companies that are stuck in the past when it comes to helping their employees achieve both professional and personal fulfillment. But when we ignore how these policies are put into practice and fail to see all the ways that policies can be undermined by the very people they are meant to support, we miss a big opportunity to move our society in a more positive direction.