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Work Life Balance

The flipside of flextime: The biggest morning work mistake

May 05, 2016 by Lindsay Racen


The popularity of offering flextime programs to employees is skyrocketing among modern companies in efforts to encourage a healthy balance between work and life commitments. Although it seems like an ideal concept for many busy professionals who have to drop their kids off at daycare or school before work, a new study reveals that it may present the biggest morning work mistake for the career conscious. 

Traditionally research shows that in general, flexible work practices lead to increased productivity, higher job satisfaction and decreased turnover intentions. Despite this positive feedback for human resources to consider, there is still an air of uncertainty of whether employees who take advantage of these options incur career penalties for doing so. Lisa M. Leslie at the University of Minnesota along with fellow scholars reported in a recent paper featured in the Academy of Management Journal that the results are mixed and primarily rely on supervisors’ perceptions.

Taking the findings a step further, researchers at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business recently revealed that a type of morning bias can negatively impact employees. According to their findings bosses may be unconsciously judging their employees when they give themselves later start times, regardless of how much work they are getting done during work designated hours.

Report methodology

The stereotype

The hypothesis was based on the importance of in which direction an employee shifts hours based on the premise that people seem to have a tendency to celebrate early risers. The concept is written in historic phrases and everyday language such as:

  • “The early bird catches the worm” – English Proverbs
  • “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” – Ben Franklin
  • “A day’s planning should be done in the morning” – China

The question that was posed was simply if in the eyes of managers with power over careers, are employees who choose later start times stereotyped as less conscientious, and given poorer performance evaluations on average? The researchers did confirm this stereotype on average after implementing a laboratory experiment that involved natural reactions to related words such as “sunrise” and “sunset.”


With the stereotype solidified the researchers went on to explore its impact in actual work settings and on ratings provided by actual supervisors. The hypothesis was supported by hard evidence. Across nearly 150 employee-supervisor relationships, they found that employees who started work earlier in the day had higher conscientious and performance ratings by their leadership.

Like many professors, the researchers had to conduct another laboratory experiment to test the hypothesis in a more tightly controlled setting which included the following details:

"We put participants in the role of being a supervisor, and asked them to rate the performance of a fictitious employee. We gave a performance profile to the supervisors, which was constant across everyone. However, in the “morning” condition we indicated that the fictional employee tended to work from 7am to 3pm, and in the “evening” condition we indicated that the fictional employee tended to work from 11am to 7pm. Everything else about the fictional employee and performance profile was identical across the conditions. Across 141 participants, we found that the research participants gave higher ratings of conscientiousness and performance to the 7am-3pm employees than to the 11am-7pm employees."


The results clearly found evidence of the natural “early bird” stereotype in the workplace concluding that, “compared to people who choose to work earlier in the day, people who choose to work later in the day are implicitly assumed to be less conscientious and less effective in their jobs.” Interestingly enough an additional finding was also revealed. In both the field study and the lab experiment, the effects were strongest for employees who had supervisors that were early risers themselves, and disappeared for employees who had supervisors who were night owls.

The fallout

Considering the popularity of flextime policies the fallout of this morning work mistake were considerable.

  • It seems likely that some employees are experiencing a decrement in their performance ratings that is not based on their actual performance.
  • Companies may be inadvertently reprimanding employees who use flextime to shift to later hours.
  • As poor performance ratings are accumulated an employee’s advancement opportunities may be affected negatively.

The fixes

This vicious cycle can be avoided if organizational leaders and human resource managers work together, and if done correctly the original positive workplace findings of many previous studies will be achieved. Similar to other common unintentional but proven bias, the advice is to increase awareness of this tendency to stereotype and why it is invalid. Employees may also want to actively engage with their superiors to ensure they understand the reasons for their adjusted work schedule.

Researchers Chris Barnes, Kai Chi Yam and Ryan Fehr presented a preview of these findings in the Harvard Business Review.



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