When Attraction Doesn’t Equal Retention: How to Make Flexibility Work

By Bruce Tulgan

Flexibility is the key word in the Talent Wars today: flexible scheduling, flexible location, flexible pay, and even flexible employment itself. The benefits of such flexibility are probably obvious. By allowing employees to set their own terms, you create a unique value proposition that makes them less likely to jump ship and work for your competition across the street. Right?

The answer is that flexibility, no matter how you’re offering it, only works if your employees feel that they can actually make use of that flexibility without hurting their careers. ‘Flexibility bias’ doesn’t just harm those who take advantage of flex offerings the most, either – it affects everyone in your organization, negatively.

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Align Your Culture with the Flexibility You Offer

Flexibility fails as a retention tool when a company’s culture doesn’t reflect the values it proposes to new hires during the attraction stage. In an effort to sell their job to a top candidate, organizations may make claims or promises about their culture that they cannot keep. Of course employees who were promised a highly flexible job would want to quit when they’re passed over for a raise, promotion, or some other reward precisely because they took advantage of that flexibility.

The solution? Either you admit that your culture won’t support flexibility and stop offering it as an incentive, or you transform your culture.

Don’t get me wrong – if flexibility offerings truly don’t work in your organization, then it makes good sense to stop shoehorning those benefits into your value proposition for new hires. You’ll be that much less likely to alienate new employees by being honest and providing them a realistic job preview at the outset.


Challenge Your Assumptions About Providing Flexibility for Employees

However, I would argue that for many organizations, supporting and valuing flexibility is more feasible than it might appear. Transforming a company culture, or building one from the ground up, is difficult and requires the dedication and effort of everyone within the organization, from the CEO to middle managers all the way down to temps and part-timers – but it can be done. It’s easy to make excuses, continue to promise flexibility, and then be upset when you fail to really make good on those promises. Transforming the company culture is the harder path, but ultimately the one that will produce dramatic results.

If you hire a mom who has made it clear to you that she needs a certain amount of scheduling flexibility in order to make this job work, you need to make sure you measure her efforts in the workplace by what matters: the results she is able to produce, her personal accountability, and all the other skills she exhibits in her work, NOT the irregularity of her schedule. Her irregular schedule shouldn’t be treated as a surprise when she established those terms from the beginning. It is up to employers and managers to work together to establish how flexibility is going to be accounted for when it comes to evaluating and rewarding performance.

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