Promoting Work/Life Balance: Easier Said Than Done

A few years ago I attended a seminar at which a HR (I think?) person from Telus presented. I still remember the seminar because the Telus representative was describing the organization’s awesome bonus and incentive plan. “We really want to recognize and reward people who go the extra mile,” he said. This seems logical: More Work = More Pay. It also appeals, on the surface, to a sense of fair play, or “merit.”

Now at the time I’d been doing quite a bit of research on work-life balance. So I asked him: How does the incentive structure affect people who might have families at home? “Everyone is free to just do their job and go home,” he replied, “We recognize that people have obligations and lives outside of work” [1]. Visiting Telus’ website confirms a basic strategy of recognizing and rewarding “above and beyond” service to the company.  The company also embraces flexible workplaces, offering workers choices about where and when to work. I mean it sounds awesome. Telus does fantastic marketing, and their “pitch” to prospective employees is no less attractive than their consumer ads. The overall message: You, the worker, are in control!

Hmmmm. Okay so how does this play out in practice? I spent some time reviewing comments from present and past Telus employees. In an open online forum, almost 300 respondents gave the company a rather abysmal overall rating of 2.5/5 “stars.” While one always has to take these evaluation free-for-alls with a grain of salt [2], the comments do suggest that what Telus proposes to offer its workers “in theory” doesn’t work out quite so smoothly in the real world. The aforementioned incentive programs are not perceived to be based on merit, but micro-politics. [3] In other words, rewards and the opportunities to earn them are not necessarily handed out to those who work hardest, but to those who the manager likes best. Worse yet, pure merit and “soft” factors like relationships with management and co-workers are very difficult to separate.

Now I’m not picking on Telus because I think Telus is an awful place to work; all I can glean is from what I’ve cited: an HR presentation, the company’s recruitment website, and employees’ anonymous evaluations. Indeed (and sadly) many are all too familiar with work organizations where the “walk” doesn’t seem to square up with the “talk.” The organizational “pecking order” is known territory as well. Telus is hardly alone in suffering such organizational ailments.

Instead, I’d like to use the Telus example to illustrate the power of organizational culture to contort the stuff that looks good “in theory.” In the case of the Telus HR presentation I began with, I was interested in the conflict between the compensation strategy, which encourages competition among workers, and the work/life balance philosophy, which instead requires cooperation and support among workers. What the Telus case illustrates is this: the rhetoric of intention (corporate missions, visions and values) is inevitably trumped by the reality of practice – that is what people actually say and do when they go about their daily business.

So what does all of this mean for my original question about the impact of Telus’ incentive structure on work life balance? Here’s the deal: Some of the most interesting literature I’ve read on work/life balance policies have been studies that show that work/life balance benefits and options are less likely to be used in workplaces where

  • workers either are or are perceived to be in competition with one another, and
  • one’s immediate supervisor is not supportive of the use of work/life balance practices, even where these are officially sanctioned by the organization [4].

When the Telus representative at the presentation I attended stated that employees had the freedom and flexibility to structure their own career paths (the Telus website says this as well) he genuinely didn’t get, I think, that it is workplace culture that determines how “free” people are to set boundaries around their devotion to their working lives. Employees read the norms of their workplace by looking at what behaviours earn favour and disfavour. It is this, not policy that determines what people are likely to do [5].

So in organizations where, technically, people are free to leave the office at 4:30 or decline shift work because they have small children at home, there’s a good chance that they won’t exercise these freedoms if they perceive that there will be costs in terms of

  • Relationships with fellow workers
  • Perceptions of whether or not one is “pulling one’s load”
  • Approval and positive relationships with management
  • Future opportunities in the organization (i.e. Welcome to the Mommy Track).

You’ll note that none of these “costs” are codified (formally drawn up and written into rules or policies). Costs are informally extracted and paid, and most of us are pretty good at picking up on them, even if we have trouble pointing to exactly how these processes work.

The Telus case exemplifies the challenges of implementing healthy workplaces, especially when managers and leaders think that policies and programs alone will do the trick. If an organization’s managers and leaders do not actively support and where appropriate model work-life balance, there’s a pretty good chance that it won’t “stick.” And if compensation systems reward poor work-life balance and penalize good work-life balance, as appears to be the case with Telus, work-life balance cannot be said to be supported by the organization. Practice trumps policy every time.

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Notes and References

[1] I should mention that I am not quoting this guy verbatim. It was a long time ago, and I am going with the “gist” of what he said.

[2] Unhappy people seem to be over-represented in anonymous online forums. Particular to the Telus employees’ reviews, there is also a distinct ideological cleavage in the responses between long-time unionized workers, and newer workers. You can skim the comments at http://www.ratemyemployer.ca/employer/employer.aspx?l=en&empID=67.

[3] Micro-politics in laypersons’ terms: “ass kissing,” “sucking up to management,” etc. In a more serious sense, the analysis of an organization’s micro-politics looks at the formal and informal means through which power is organized and exercised in small “micro” ways (between individuals, in small groups, in an organization’s departments). Most of us have an intuitive sense of this… we know who the “boss’s favourites” are; we know who the queen bees and alpha males are.

One interesting thing is that people can become more or less powerful in an organization even when roles are horizontal, or pretty much the same. For example, all teachers have the same “status” professionally in their schools, but can exercise different levels of power. Why is that? Analyses focusing on micro-politics would try to answer questions like these.

In academic circles, the use of micro-politics as a tool of organizational analysis is, in my humble opinion, under-rated. Perhaps it is because, as Burns (1961) observes, people at work generally don’t like to think of themselves as political actors with personal interests. He further argues that there are more and less appropriate settings and organizational types for overt versus covert efforts to acquire power. See Burns, T. (1961). Micropolitics: Mechanisms of institutional change. Administrative Science Quarterly, 6(3), 257-281.

[4] cf. Veiga, J. (2004). Toward understanding employee reluctance to participate in family-friendly programs. Human Resource Management Review, 14(3), 337-351. Kossek, E., Lewis, S., & Hammer, L. B. (2009). Work–life initiatives and organizational change: Overcoming mixed messages to move from the margin to the mainstream. Human Relations, 63(1), 3-19

[5] Veiga (2004) states that workers assess the “image cost” of using benefits and policies, and that they will decline to use these if they perceive the image cost to be too high.

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