Up­dat­ing the Im­age of the Ideal Worker

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Erin Reid

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 clos­ing

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.