Workzone: Built-in bias may exist against later starting times

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There could be some truth in the saying that the “early bird gets the worm” when it comes to workplace evaluations.

A team of management professors at the University of Washington in Seattle found that the time of day employees start work often influences the performance rating they receive from supervisors. Their study found evidence that employees who start earlier are often perceived as better employees.

“We as a society value people who get an early start,” said Christopher Barnes, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington and one of three researchers on the study.

“There are multiple reasons various employees prefer to start early or late,” he said. “You take two workers, and although both may contribute the same quality of work and work the same number of hours, they could still be viewed differently by colleagues and supervisors based on start times.”

Wisdom passed down through the ages instructs us that “Early to bed and early to rise makes one healthy, wealthy and wise.” The Army even created an ad campaign boasting that its soldiers do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.

Considering how much American culture celebrates the early bird, University of Washington researchers Kai Chi, Ryan Fehr and Mr. Barnes wanted to see if a workplace bias existed in which people associated early with good and late with bad.

Their research explored the impact of the perception in light of a growing number of companies that offer workers the opportunity to work flexible hours due to child care or other personal or family demands.

Their research suggests that flexible work hours can be harmful to employees’ careers.

Over a nine-month period, the researchers had supervisors rate the work performance of employees while tracking their start and finish times. Early starters were seen as more conscientious employees.

Interestingly enough, when supervisors started early, they rated early risers even better. Night owl supervisors,on the other hand, did not dock any points from late-starting employees and did not see late starters as being any less conscientious than early starters.

“Our results suggest that supervisor ratings of job performance are susceptible to stereotypic beliefs based on employees’ start times,” the study concludes.

Carrie Haglund, branch manager of Accountemps in Sewickley, a temporary staffing service for accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals, said the majority of workers have a 9-to-5 schedule, but flex time is becoming more common as employees and employers try to fit work schedules into more hectic personal lives that may involve parenting responsibilities and caring for aging parents.  

“It comes down to communication and expectations,” Ms. Haglund said. “The hours and duties should be clearly defined. As long as the duties are clearly defined, communicated and upheld, there would hopefully not be negative stereotypes about someone working a flexible schedule.”

Mr. Barnes said workers and supervisors should consider two takeaway points from the study.

“If you have the opportunity to use flex time to start work at various times of the day, you have to be careful how you do it,” he said. “You could harm your own performance rating and career opportunities by choosing a later start time, simply because we now know there are biases against doing so.

“Also, we need to be careful to inform managers that they have this natural tendency and not fall prey to this trap,” Mr. Barnes said. “They could be harming the careers of employees who take advantage of the flex time policy even though the company endorses it. You put employees in a double bind that way.”

Tim Grant: or 412-263-1591.

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