Several years ago, my boss walked over to my desk and asked how many sick days I had taken during the past year.
“One, I think,” was my reply.
“OK, just wanted to make sure you didn’t have five or six,” he said.
As he walked off, I wondered why this info would be so important so I jumped up and followed him to his office.
“It’s just part of the evaluation process,” he told me. I asked further questions and learned that if I took more than two or three days of earned sick time that would be a black mark on my job evaluation.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “The company gives me eight sick days a year. And, you’re saying I can be penalized for using them?”
That’s one tactic employers try to restrict use of company policies they aren’t terribly comfortable with, says Joan C. Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings.
She says some companies are rebelling against workplace flexibility provisions such as workers taking time off for child or elder care and working at home.
“Many times these policies are on the books, but informally everyone knows you are penalized for using them,” says Williams. “I invented the term ‘flexibility stigma’ to describe that phenomenon. Recent studies have found that it is alive and well, and it functions quite differently for women than it does for men.”
Williams believes this offers the opportunity for companies to look at women through the lens of motherhood, prompting the strongest form of gender discrimination.
She also says that men who seek workplace flexibility might be penalized more severely than women because they’re deviating from the traditional male role of committed breadwinners.
This stigma might be why such things as telecommuting and job-sharing have been slow to catch on, even though they are allowed by many companies, at least on paper.
Cornell University economics professor Francine Blau believes employers may be less likely to promote or put women in higher positions if they think they are going to take advantage of flexible arrangements. That might explain why more American women are likely to work full-time instead of part-time than other women around the world.
“If you have an extensive network of these family-friendly programs, it can encourage women to take a more traditional role,” Blau says. “It’s an issue of balance. If you don’t have adequate arrangements, then it’s hard for women to maintain their attachments to the labor force and for employers to invest in the women’s skills.”
This stigma underscores the reality that unless companies believe in the policies, those policies will not be used. It’s actually a way that a well-intended company can go astray and watch as the policy they embraced cripples them.
It also serves as a reminder that having a policy on the books is no good unless employees find it useful.