How’s Your Job Flexibility Fit?

Posted Wednesday, May 30th, 2012  | Comments (3) rule
A new study shows both up and down trends in workplace flexibility at U.S. workplaces. Employers should start asking if that’s good for business.
Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, PhD
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Phone: 617.552.4033

Although some aspects of workplace flexibility have gained traction over the past seven years, many others have failed to catch on or have lost ground.

That’s the news from the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in New York City. For the past 14 years, the institute has been surveying employers across a nationally representative group of U.S. employers to monitor policies and practices that support productivity and a high quality of life for employees. It’s the only organization that’s been asking these questions long-term. The institute’s 2012 National Study of Employers—the fourth in the series—provides insights about today’s workplaces and tracks shifts for better or worse since 2005.

One example of positive change since the last survey is the increase in the percent of organizations that allow at least some of their employees to work some of their regular paid hours at home on an occasional basis. Just under two-thirds do; nearly double the share in 2005. Another promising trend is an increase in those that allow at least some employees to periodically change starting and quitting times within some range of hours. More than three-quarters are now offering that option.

The percent of workplaces offering other types of flexible work options stayed the same or even declined. For example, only a third of employers now allow at least some employees to work some of their regular paid hours at home on a regular basis—a figure that has scarcely moved since 2005. The percentage of employers allowing at least some employees to phase into retirement has also held steady, at only a little more than half. And, the institute’s report documents declines since 2005 in employers that allow at least some employees to work part-year on an annual basis, to take sabbaticals, and to take a career break to attend to personal or family responsibilities.

It’s 2012. What’s happening?

A survey conducted by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work in 2007 found that approximately 40 percent of the nearly 600 employers that responded reported that they encountered the following barriers when they considered implementing flexibility policies and practices:

  • concerns about abuse of policies (42.3 percent)
  • concerns about the reactions of customers and clients (41.2 percent)
  • difficulties supervising employees who work in a flexible manner (40.9 percent)
  • concerns about loss of productivity (40.6 percent)
  • concerns about treating all employees equally (40.1 percent)

Employers across the country have found effective solutions to these concerns. Some of these leading organizations have received the Sloan Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility.

So, it’s time for employers to take the next step—a running step—to catapult over at least some of these perceived barriers. The next move could be straightforward, easy to implement, and relevant to a broad range of work situations.

What’s the bold idea?

What if supervisors across the country periodically asked their employees, “Does your work schedule help you to be productive and effective at work? Does your schedule suit your personal and family responsibilities?” Although supervisors cannot (and should not) set up expectations that they’ll always be able change schedules, don’t employers want to know whether schedule adjustments and other flexibility options can contribute to a workforce that is engaged, performing well, and committed to the organization?

Good supervisors already check in with their staffs periodically to see whether their employees are on track to meet their metrics, to take a pulse of workplace dynamics, and to gauge levels of job satisfaction. It wouldn’t take much more effort for supervisors to assess the job flexibility fit. This small change could have a big impact.

Comments (3) for "How’s Your Job Flexibility Fit?"

How Age Bias Hurts Business

Posted Wednesday, May 16th, 2012  | Comments (7) rule
Never mind legal bills; there’s a bigger threat to the bottom line
About Jackie James  About Sharon McKechnie About Elyssa Besen
Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Director of Research
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Phone: 617.552.2860
Sharon McKechnie, PhD
Assistant Professor of Management
Emmanuel College
Phone: 617.975.9422
Elyssa Besen
Doctoral Research Assistant
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Phone: 617.552.1354

These days, people who wouldn’t dream of making racial and ethnic slurs can be heard agreeing with ageist comments and laughing at jokes about older people.

The workplace is not free of these attitudes. According to a 2009 survey of workers and job seekers between the ages of 55 and 70, 43 percent of those who were currently seeking work or who had retired because they could not find work said the main problem was “they could not find an employer who would hire someone their age.” Nearly a quarter of all charges brought to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year claimed discrimination on the basis of age. Nevertheless, ageism—discrimination on the basis of age—is a diversity issue that employers in the United States are only beginning to understand.

Certainly employers worry about avoiding legal action by older workers whom they lay off or pass up for promotion. But are they thinking deeply about the impact that the perception of bias might have on their employees generally—even those who don’t sue? A recent study that we conducted at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work suggests they should. (The results will be published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Managerial Psychology.)

We wondered, does the perception of age bias in the workplace have an impact on employees’ motivation or sense of engagement in their jobs? To answer this question, we surveyed more than 4,000 retail workers (ranging in age from 18 to 94) in three regions of the United States.

Studying perceptions of age bias in the workplace is quite a challenge; employers are understandably reluctant to allow researchers to ask direct questions about actual experiences of age bias. Instead we asked respondents the extent to which they agreed with the statement, “Workers age 55 and older are just as likely to be promoted as younger workers.” We interpreted disagreement with that statement as indirect evidence of perceived age bias. We also probed perceptions of older workers’ capabilities for promotion, by asking the extent to which employees agreed with statements about older workers’ flexibility, ability to adapt to new technology, interest in training, and eagerness for promotion—traits deemed to be important for productive work.

Age bias can be intentional or unintentional. Our study tested the hypothesis that the difference between the two matters in terms of the extent to which bias is seen as fair or unfair, and thus the extent to which the perception of bias might affect work motivation.

For example, if employees believe that older workers should step aside and allow younger employees to move up, seeing older workers passed over for promotions should strike them as fair, and their sense of engagement and motivation at work should not diminish. Since all age bias is discriminatory, we refer to this phenomenon as perceived unintentional discrimination.

Similarly, employees who believe that older workers generally are not worthy of promotions because they lack flexibility, the capacity to adapt to new technology, interest in training, and eagerness for promotions should consider it fair for older workers as a group to be passed over for promotions. This, too, we reasoned, is a perception of unintentional bias that would not be likely to depress work engagement.

In contrast, if employees view older workers as a group as both capable and eager for promotions that are denied, the bias these employees observe would be perceived intentional discrimination, and its effect should be to decrease work engagement.

One result of our study surprised us. As we expected, the survey responses of employees of all ages who perceived that workers age 55 and older were less likely to be promoted than younger workers showed these employees to be less engaged in their work than those who did not perceive such discrimination. Also as expected, the perception of unintentional discrimination was more strongly related to lower employee engagement among older workers than younger workers. Our hypothesis did not prepare us for the finding that the perception of intentional discrimination was actually more strongly related to lower employee engagement among younger workers than older workers.

In practical terms, the perception of discrimination, whether intentional or unintentional, against older workers across age groups creates a difficult environment for managers. Perceptions of age bias in promotion decisions seem to make employees less likely to go that extra mile, even those who believe such bias is fair.
Managers can take steps to alleviate this kind of workplace stress. Recent research in management science yields the following recommendations:

  • develop the ability to recognize stereotyping when it happens
  • avoid basing any decisions—especially those related to layoffs—on age
  • provide diversity training with age in the mix
  • use older workers to their competitive advantage

Our research shows why taking steps like these not only keep companies out of court but are good for business in every way.

Comments (7) for "How Age Bias Hurts Business"

What’s Age Got to Do with It?

Posted Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012  | Comments (4) rule
Dr. Philip Taylor, Professor at Monash University in Australia, is an internationally recognized researcher with significant expertise in the area of aging and work. For several years, he has served on the Center Strategy Council. Dr. Taylor is one of our guest bloggers. Responding to the policy recently adopted in Australia, which compensates employers for hiring older workers, Dr. Taylor raises a number of important points and raises some provocative questions that are relevant to the choices facing many countries around the world.
Taylor's photo
Philip Taylor, PhD
Director, Research and Graduate Studies
Monash University, Gippsland Campus


Recently the Australian Government announced its response to the Final Report of the Advisory Panel on the Economic Potential of Senior Australians (EPSA) which proposes a range of funding initiatives to motivate employers to take on older workers. But do such well-meaning attempts at policy development actually encourage ageist attitudes among the public?

Age features heavily in public debate concerning the Australian workforce. We regularly read about studies showing that older workers are considered ‘dinosaurs’ by co-workers and managers, and face immense hurdles when looking for work. Conversely, the reports tell us that so-called Generation Ys do not want to work as hard as their parents – they work to live rather than live to work.

The issue is how society responds to commentary about older and younger workers that almost always casts them in a negative light.

As part of its response, the Government proposes that Aus$10 million be allocated for the introduction of a Aus$1000 Jobs Bonus for employers who recruit an older jobseeker and retain them for more than three months. Also proposed is Aus$15.6 million to extend the Corporate Champions program, which provides support to employers who wish to promote older worker employment at their workplace.

The intention is to help overcome the initial reluctance of some employers to appoint older jobseekers. But by drawing attention to older workers in this fashion, policymakers may simply be alerting employers of the need to be wary of a particular segment of the workforce. A segment whose deficiencies are deemed so great that they require government subsidies to find a job. Added to this, such schemes are administratively burdensome for employers who might not consider the incentive as being worth the effort.

The Opposition’s Employment Participation plan contains a very similar proposal for a Aus$3250 Seniors Employment Incentive Payment for employers that hire workers aged 50 or older. This plan also includes yet another attempt at age-based policymaking, this time targeting young people. The Opposition proposes to introduce new Job Commitment Bonus Payments to encourage long-term unemployed young Australians to find a job and keep it. Those aged 18 to 30 who have been unemployed for 12 months or more and are on NewStart Allowance or Youth Allowance will receive a Aus$2500 Job Commitment Bonus if they get a job and remain off welfare for a continuous period of 12 months.

According to the Opposition such payments provide an incentive to get young unemployed Australians off welfare and into paid work and, by making the payments conditional upon retaining work for an extended period, will encourage those who secure a job to remain employed. However, such an approach risks feeding stereotypes of young people as lacking a desirable work ethic.

Aged-based public policy is not the answer. Chronological age is a poor predictor of the employment-related needs of an individual, and public programs that use it as a selection criterion send the wrong signals to employers, workers and society as a whole.

Such policies risk deepening age prejudice and institutionalising age discrimination, against both young and old. Such an approach is, by its very nature, ageist, and can in fact further erode self-worth by categorising some people as ‘difficult to employ’ or ‘workshy’.

Much of the present public discourse may only reinforce the prejudices of a society already obsessed with age. Instead, we need to see more examples of older workers making successful transitions to employment and the many thoughtful employers who are embracing the talents of people, regardless of their age. This way will lead to a reshaping of public attitudes. Here the extension of the Government’s Corporate Champions program is a sensible approach, if these examples of employer good practice are widely promoted amongst the business community.

Above all, policymakers need to avoid falling into the trap of offering simplistic solutions that could add to the difficulties faced by segments of the workforce. There is no doubt that ageism exists, but the challenge now is for commentators, advocacy groups and policymakers to tackle this positively, not merely to remind us.

Professor Philip Taylor researches age and the labour market at Monash University.

Comments (4) for "What’s Age Got to Do with It?"

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