Flextime: Bias of the Night Owls

October 22, 201410:30 am410 views

Flextime programs are increasingly popular — and often becoming a standard work option — with global firms like Google allowing many employees to set their own hours. At Microsoft, many employees have the choice of when to start their day, between 9am and 11am. At the “Big Four” auditing firm KPMG, roughly 70 percent of employees work flexible hours.

These programs help employees avoid conflicts between home and work, as well as manage the temporal boundaries of the work day. A section of core hours must remain common across employees. But within these constraints, workers can schedule their office hours around the various other demands on their time.

It’s also a matter of enlightened self-interest for companies as well, with positive business outcomes. Research generally shows that flexible work practices lead to increased productivity, higher job satisfaction, and decreased turnover intentions – something that any business benefits from.

Yet the question lingers of whether employees who take advantage of flexible work policies incur career penalties for doing so.

The Question

The answer to that questions raises mixed evidence.  A potential reason for widely varying outcomes: managers might look upon flextime favourably when perceiving a worker used it to achieve higher productivity. When used to accommodate personal-life demands, it was seen unfavourably.  Depending on what managers attributed the flextime use to, employees were either rewarded or penalised.

Another possible explanation for why some flextime-using staff would experience negative career outcomes is the direction in which employees shift hours. People tend towards celebrating early-risers, by virtue of the popularity of aphorisms like “a day’s planning should be done in the morning.” In the eyes of managers, are employees who choose later start times stereotyped as less conscientious and appraised lower on their performance metrics?

In short, were the early-riser ‘larks’ perceived as superior to the late shift ‘night owls’?

The Research

On average, people do make a greater natural implicit association between morning and conscientiousness. Theoretically, supervisor ratings of conscientiousness and performance should be associated with the timing of an employee’s work day – something that was found to be true during field research.

Across 149 employee-supervisor dyads, employees who started work earlier in the day were rated by their supervisors as more conscientious, receiving higher performance ratings. Replicating these results, supervisors were asked to rate the performance profile of a fictitious employee, divided into a morning and evening profiles.

See: Telecommuting: Absent Workers, Productive Office?

The morning profile indicated that the fictional employee tended to work from 7am to 3pm, while the evening profile indicated the fictional employee tended to work from 11am to 7pm. Everything else about the fictional employee and performance profile was identical across both conditions. Across 141 supervisors, most gave higher ratings of conscientiousness and performance to the 7am-3pm employees, rather than the 11am-7pm employees.

As it turns out, a natural stereotype exists, where staff who choose to work later in the day are implicitly assumed to be less conscientious and less effective in their jobs.

But an additional finding must also be noted. Employees who had supervisors who were larks were marked more negatively,while employees who had supervisors who were night owls were not appraised on their performance as harshly.


The implications aren’t positive, because it shows that some employees experiencing a decrement in their performance ratings isn’t linked to their actual performance, but the subconscious bias of their supervisor. Organisations may inadvertently be punishing the employees who use flextime to start and finish working later in the day.

As accumulated poor performance ratings lead to detrimental consequences when it comes to career advancement, this partly explains why flextime utilisation can have negative effects on employee careers.

Significantly, it shows that senior managers must intervene to prevent supervisors from penalising employees for using their flextime policies, which are endorsed by their organisation. If supervisors and managers encourage the use of flextime, they’ll produce the benefits noted by previous research and case studies.

As with unintentional but proven bias, managers need to be aware of their tendency to stereotype, and the lack of validity in their assumption. They must recognise their cognitive tendencies and adjust their decision-making to account for them.  Managers must be especially diligent appraising the performance of employees based on objective standards, rather than allowing implicit prejudices to colour their evaluations.

As for employees? If they have the opportunity to use flextime, the’ll benefit from moving their schedules to earlier in the day rather than later. However, a trend in that direction can only worsen penalties for colleagues whose personal lives make such earlier hours difficult.

A good approach would be to raise the subject of hours and timing with supervisors, making explicit the understanding that start time is irrelevant. Either way, leaders must accept that employees who use flextime to start their day late are not necessarily lazier. Otherwise, flextime policies that could serve both employees and employers well will become known, and avoided, as routes to dead-end careers.

Credit: Barnes,C.M., Yam, K.C. and Fehr, R. (2014). With Flextime, Bosses Prefer Early Birds to Night Owls. HBR Blog Network.

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