Updating the Image of the Ideal Worker
Regardless of gender, today’s workers are pushing back against 24/7 availability.
The association between success and complete devotion to one’s work may be as much a matter of perception as reality.
employees are expected to be wholIN MANY ORGANIZATIONS TODAY, ly devoted to their work, such that they attend to their jobs ahead of all else, including family, personal needs — and even their health. These expectations are personified by the image of the ‘ideal worker’, which defines the most desirable workers as those who are totally committed to and always available for their work. Embracing this image is richly rewarded — particularly in professional and managerial jobs.
Scholars have long focused on the difficulties that women experience with these expectations, but my research suggests that men also find these expectations challenging. People of both genders are facing a conflict between employer expectations and the type of worker that they prefer to be.
I recently set out to examine how people working at a demanding professional services firm navigate tensions between organizational expectations that they be ‘ideal workers’ — which I call the expected professional identity — and the type of workers they prefer to be — their experienced professional identity.
Identity Management: ‘Passing’ and ‘Revealing’
For some time, the image of the ideal worker and its attendant expectation of ‘complete devotion to work’ has been believed to be a key driver of workplace gender inequality. Scholars have mostly examined how women — and mothers in particular — navigate expectations that they devote themselves to work.
Less attention has been paid to men’s experiences in this regard, echoing more general tendencies to frame work–family conflict as a ‘woman’s problem’. Yet as a core element of an expected professional identity, this image shapes all workers’ experiences. To develop a theory about the ways that people manage incongruence between expected and experienced professional identities, I turned to sociologist Erving Goffman’s concepts of ‘passing’ and ‘revealing’.
Passing and revealing are ways that people control other peoples’ beliefs about ‘who they are’. The need to ‘pass’ or ‘reveal’ arises when an individual feels she does not belong to a favoured group. In some cases, the characteristics that disqualify one from membership are clearly visible (e.g., skin colour) and are managed through methods that reduce the salience of that characteristic. Other characteristics, however, are invisible (e.g., sexual preference), so people can choose how to manage them: They may either misrepresent themselves as being members of the favoured group — thus ‘passing’; or proactively disclose that they are non-members — thus ‘revealing’.
To better understand these issues, I conducted a field study at ‘AGM’ (a pseudonym), a global consulting firm with a strong
U.S. presence. Like many such firms, AGM offers advisory services in multiple areas, using small teams to complete projects over a period of weeks to months. Consulting is a notoriously demanding profession: Typically, individuals must be available for overnight travel to client sites and often work evenings and weekends on short notice.
This work setting provided certain advantages for my investigations. First, identity expectations in professional jobs are strong, and AGM’S status as one of the most demanding consulting firms qualified it as an ‘extreme’ case, where pressures to be an ideal worker might be especially acute. Second, as AGM hired from elite colleges and MBA programs, its hires were fairly homogeneous in terms of intellect, education level and social skills. Participants were therefore likely to be capable of doing the work, and this helped to focus my analysis on how they coped with the firm’s expectations.
The core data for my study came from more than 100 interviews with consultants, all of whom held undergraduate or advanced degrees from elite schools. Twenty-two percent were women, similar to the proportional representation of women at AGM at the time, and similar to or higher than that at competitor firms; and 13 per cent were visible racial minorities. One year after the initial interviews, I reached out to participants to request access to their performance data and to learn about their recent work experiences.
The Expected Identity: Committed and Available
The consultants in my study believed that AGM expected them to be fully devoted to work — primarily committed to it and available at all times. Although people sometimes associated other attributes with success (e.g., courage, charisma), mention of these attributes was sporadic relative to the near-constant emphasis on commitment and availability.
For these consultants, being committed to work meant often placing work ahead of other life demands. Curtis, for example, had spent Thanksgiving “running a project remotely from the outside deck of [my in-laws’] condominium in Florida.” Despite his wife’s fury, he believed that his job required this commitment:
I sometimes have to get calls on Sunday nights or Saturday mornings; the weekend is not sacred. If the client needs me, I will generally take the call. When they need me to be somewhere, I have to be there; you don’t have the latitude to say, ‘I can’t do it’.’ Although availability was associated with commitment, the two were not the same: Commitment involved ‘dedicating oneself to work ahead of other demands and responsibilities’, while availability corresponded to ‘extended work hours and willingness to travel’. People were expected to work all night, if needed, to get things done and to travel at the drop of a hat. The need to be fully available, along with the need to be primarily committed to work, characterized Junior Manager Amos’s description of his colleagues:
We’re thinking about work 24/7. I mean, maybe you tune out for a little while here and there, but AGM people work all the time. I mean, you wake up at night, you’re dreaming about it. The first thing you do in the morning is pick up your Blackberry.
To assess the extent to which consultants’ views about the identity of a successful consultant were shared by those who evaluated them, I compared the perceptions of people in client-service based roles (associate through partner) to those of people who led the firm and who controlled recruiting and evaluation (senior partners and HR leaders). The result: Nearly all shared the consultants’ beliefs regarding the importance of commitment and availability. As Sharon (a Partner) said, “The culture at AGM is ‘give, give, give’. But no one ever thanks you. It’s like the message is, We will only love you if you give, give, give.”
I found that AGM pressured its people to adopt this highly committed, highly-available identity through two primary ‘identity-control mechanisms’.
The first control mechanism was the THE STRUCTURE OF WORK. firm’s haphazard work structure: Crisis situations, wherein teams worked late into the night, were common, and partners often promised clients new work, mid-project. Clients often expected travel at short notice: Two people arrived for our interview uncertain as to whether they would be travelling that day, and several rescheduled interviews because of unanticipated travel. Junior Manager Kristi’s comments about a recent project illustrate the demands that ensued: On a recent project, the partners were very busy, so they would get my document at 10 a.m. and not look at it until 10 p.m. Then, at 11 p.m., I’d have to work on it and get the team online to do the work so they could turn it around for the next day.
For these consultants, being committed to work meant often placing work ahead of other life demands.
Partners acknowledged that the structure of work demanded a particular type of person. Said one: “My teams occasionally have to work overnight, around the clock. Some people thrive on the idea that, ‘This is a gold medal game,’ and others don’t. This job requires that you thrive on that. It uses every bit of you”.
The second control mechanism used PERFORMANCE EVALUATIONS. by AGM was its performance evaluation system. Assessing competence and work quality is difficult in professional service work, and firms consequently may evaluate people based on subjective perceptions. AGM officially assessed performance along multiple dimensions, including relational and analytic skills. However, HR leaders stressed the importance of availability and commitment and described these attributes in terms of an expected identity. For example, Partner Keith, head of the HR department, described successful consultants in the following terms:
I have person A and person B. Person B doesn’t seem that committed, or willing to go the extra mile; if I ask them to do something, they huff around and it feels like work to get it done. Person A, I ask to do something and it gets done immediately; if I have a problem I can call them, and the next day they’ve taken a crack at it, with a smile on their face. We will use that in appraisal and recruiting.
This evaluation system, together with the structure of work at AGM, was key to how the firm controlled who succeeded and who failed.
Embracing the Ideal vs. ‘Straying’
Nearly all consultants I spoke to were aware of the firm’s expected professional identity, but I found that only a minority actually conformed to it. Whether consultants embraced or strayed from the expected professional identity varied according to its fit with the type of professional they authentically wanted to be.
Many people’s preferred professional identities — 43 per cent of the sample — were congruent with the expected professional identity, and they easily embraced it. Revealing their commitment, they spoke frequently of their ‘passion’ for their work and ‘what we’re trying to do in the world’. Many described being offered good jobs elsewhere, but choosing to stay at AGM. They were also fully available: Most regularly worked late nights and weekends, more than 70 hours a week, and willingly travelled at a client’s whim. Senior Manager Dave told me: At the end of the day, I like working hard. I want to be successful and make a lot of money. So, I don’t mind being at work at 9 pm.”
However, the majority of people I spoke to (57 per cent of the sample) encountered conflict between the expected identity and their preferred identity. Scholars typically identify the ideal worker image as being chiefly problematic for women, but at AGM, that was definitely not the case: The majority of my sample was unwilling to make work their primary life commitment, unwilling to make themselves fully available for their work, or both, and hence, their experienced identities conflicted with AGM’S expected professional identity. Such a conflict is illustrated in Senior Manager Thomas’s musings about his future at the firm:
I’m at a crossroads about how much I want to push for partner. I kind of want to do it on my own terms, as opposed to assume I have to be like some of the other partners. There’s definitely the ‘road warrior’ model, the guy who’s always on the road, who’s sending emails on Saturday and Sunday. But I don’t want that.
People’s non-work lives provoked conflict over their professional identities. Junior Manager Cliff told me:
[I’m] someone that is a little quicker to say, ‘This is good enough’ and pass it along than my peers are. I think that might affect my ability to be really successful here. The decision for me is, do I sit down and have dinner with my fiancée or wolf it down and go back to work? I always choose not to work. That makes it a little less likely that I’ll be CEO of this place one day.
Some people coped with this conflict by actively straying from the expected identity. By altering aspects of their work (e.g., client types, client location), they constructed opportunities to remain true to their preferred identities. Unlike those who embraced the ideal, these people reported working 60 hours per week or less, having predictable work schedules, and having regular engagement in other aspects of life.
Partner Colin told me: “I work until 5:30 or 6. I go home, have dinner with my family, put the kids to bed. Then I’ll probably work an hour or two after that, if I need to’. Most limited weekend work to exceptional circumstances; several minimized
travel, and for these people, work did not normally trump other life commitments. Thus, they were both less committed to their work, and less available for it, than the expected identity demanded.
Some people described cultivating local, repeat or nonprofit clients who required less time and commitment than typical clients. Others found ways to work on internal firm projects, which reduced travel time and had more predictable demands, worked from home, creating space for other aspects of life. These efforts bear resemblance to ‘job crafting’ — altering the aspects of one’s job in ways that reshape one’s work identity. However, my findings go further, showing that these efforts to alter the structure of work also permitted people to avoid disclosing their desire to stray from the expected identity and allowed them to pass as having embraced it. Although some who altered their jobs were penalized, others seemed to ‘pass’ as having embraced the expected identity.
For example, Senior Manager Lloyd viewed himself as an ‘odd duck’ and strayed from the expected identity: “I skied five days last week; I took my calls in the morning and later in the evening, but I was able to be there for my son when he needed me.” He clarified that he viewed these as work days, not vacation days: “No one knows where I am. Because we’re mobile, there are no boundaries.”
By working with local clients and telecommuting, Lloyd altered the structure of his work in ways that allowed him to stray from the expected professional identity. Indeed, despite his ‘deviance’ from the ideal, senior colleagues viewed him as an incumbent of the expected identity: Partner Cameron labeled Lloyd a “rising star” who worked “much harder” than he did. This assessment — in combination with Lloyd’s star performance rating of 4 and his promotion to Partner that year — suggests he had successfully ‘passed’ in the eyes of senior members of the firm.
By contrast, those who actually requested AGM’S help to restructure their work through informal alterations such as local clients or formal accommodations such as parental leave — thereby revealing their ‘deviance’ — were penalized. Junior Manager Doug recounted how he lost a promotion because, fol- lowing months in the Middle East, he requested a U.s.-based project:
I told the firm, I don’t think I can go back to the Middle East, and if that means I’m going to have to look for something else, that’s okay. Because I’m a brown guy, it’s easy to think that the Middle East is no big hurdle for me. They actually said, ‘Its easier for you because you don’t drink’ (alcohol is prohibited in the country I was working in). I said, ‘Listen, drinking and not drinking is not the issue: It’s about being away from my family for that long.”
Doug’s story arose again during an interview I conducted with Senior Manager Barry, who had also worked in the Middle East. Barry told me, “Doug’s wife didn’t want him to do it, but he did it anyway. He stayed for about five months and then came back and refused to go back again.” Barry identified working in the Middle East as an opportunity that had signaled his personal commitment to AGM and had enabled a recent promotion. Thus, the man who went to the Middle East happily was promoted; and the man who publicly cut his stay short, thereby revealing his deviance, was denied a promotion.
Accessing the firm’s formal accommodations also revealed deviance. For example, Michael told me:
When my daughter was born, I wanted to take off three months and be a stay-at-home dad. I felt like this was the only time in my career I would be able to do this. But the reaction I got was, ‘You can’t take three months off!”
He settled for six weeks of unpaid leave and worked 80-hour weeks, travelling weekly, for the rest of the year. Yet he found that “people still talked like I was out three months.” At his annual review, he was told that AGM could not properly evaluate him because the six weeks he had taken off meant he “had this big donut hole in [his] year.” That year, his performance rating fell from a 3 to a 2, and he did not receive a hoped-for promotion. Thus, Michael’s ‘deviance’ was both recognized and penalized.
The majority of people I spoke to (57 per cent of the sample) encountered conflict between the expected identity and their preferred identity.
In a subsequent conversation, he reflected, “No one ever questioned my commitment until I had a family.”
In the firm I studied, most workers — not simply women and not simply those with families — encountered conflict between the expected ‘ideal worker’ identity and reality, and they responded by straying from the expected identity. This deviance did not in itself beget penalties: Rather, some people ‘strayed’ while still ‘passing’ as having embraced the expected identity. Moreover, although men and women both experienced conflict, they managed their deviance differently: Men tended to pass, whereas women tended to reveal.
An important contribution of my study is to introduce the idea of ‘straying’ from the ideal worker image, and from expected professional identities more generally, while still ‘passing’ as having embraced it. As indicated herein, not all deviance is detected: Rather, people retain some agency in how they respond to pressures to assume an expected identity and may find ways to pass.
My findings underscore the importance of better understanding how people handle pressures to be ideal workers, as well as the consequences of their conformity or deviance for both themselves and the organization.
Erin Reid is an Associate Professor of Human Resources and Management at Mcmaster University’s Degroote School of Business. The paper on which this article is based was published in the journal Organization Science and can be downloaded online.