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Mass Career Customization -a flexible career approach : effects on women's career advancement and wellbeing

Final Report Summary - GENDERMASSCAREER (Mass Career Customization -a flexible career approach : effects on women's career advancement and wellbeing.)

The overall research objective of the IEF fellowship was to examine how organisations by the use of more flexible career models can create inclusive organisational cultures that promote equal career opportunities, wellbeing and productivity among their workforce. Data was obtained in one of the big four professional accounting firms that has adopted a so-called career customization approach in the Netherlands. In order to detect a form of change on outcome variables such as subjective and objective career success, engagement, turnover intention, perceptions of supervisory support, and organizational work-home culture etc., a survey was administered at three points of time that constitute important dates in the career customization implementation sequence. The time between each measurement is one annual evaluation cycle (11 months), and the overall time span is three evaluation cycles across 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Professional service firms (PSFs) are increasingly confronted with a disconnect between their common “up or out” career system which relies on a main provider model with matching fulltime and long hours commitment, and the needs of a changed workforce in terms of growing numbers of women, dual earners, and single parents who combine career and care. As a response to “regretted” losses of highly qualified professionals, firms typically respond with offering flexible work arrangements and alternative offside career tracks. In the professional service firm under study, a so-called career customization approach was adopted that allows employees to customize their career on an annual basis by dialing down or dialing up on four relevant dimensions (pace, location, workload, and responsibility). By providing career options along a career lattice rather than a career ladder, those firms are trying to establish inclusive work cultures that foster the contribution of each professional while considering individual needs related to career and care.

In study one we assessed how the career customization approach unfolds for employees working in organizational cultures that over decades have been tied to the career ladder logic of the “up or out” career system. We measured the objective and subjective career consequences of participating in this new career approach over three evaluation cycles, exploring differences between men and women, parents and non-parents. Our findings show that while participating in career customization results in some positive subjective outcomes (e.g. increased career satisfaction for fathers who dialed down), the penalties of dialing down in terms of objective career outcomes show that the “up or out” system still constitutes a strong professional norm that is deeply embedded in the organizational culture. Further, our findings show a clear sign of flexibility stigma in terms of performance evaluations of fathers who dialed down. In this regard, in the particular case of our PSF, there exists not only a need for overcoming deeply embedded career assumptions tied to the traditional career ladder logic of the “up or out”, but also a need to question traditional assumptions about gender roles and careers. The latter becomes particular essential, as our overall findings show no “pure” gender differences but mainly parental status differences on career outcomes. Performance evaluations rather differed on whether someone is a parent or not, clearly favoring non-parents over parents. Consequently, a clear message of our findings is that combining career and care is not primarily a women’s issue, but clearly a parental concern.
In study two we investigated how the specific supervisor support received for participating in the mass career customization influenced employees overall perceptions of family supportive organizational culture, and ultimately work engagement and turnover intention over time. High attrition rates around 30% of highly qualified professionals make many PSFs questioning the appropriateness of their organizational support system. Facing labour shortages and a war for talent, firms are therefore critically dependent on their ability to create supportive work environments that engage and retain highly talented professionals. Studies have shown that it is a combination of practice availability, perceived supervisor support and organizational family support that helps organizations engaging and retaining employees. Our findings clearly highlight the influential role of specific supervisor support with practice implementation in changing organisational culture perceptions, and in turn employee engagement and turnover intention over time.

Findings of study one and study two have several implications for companies and policy makers. By developing innovative career approaches companies can help their workforce to reconcile the work-life interface and to facilitate their ability to enact desired personal and professional roles over the course of their career. In order to fully benefit from new career approaches, companies need to involve and train their supervisors in the implementation process. Human resources needs to train supervisors to look beyond stereotypical gender roles and combine career support (for mothers especially – to match high performance evaluations with higher salaries regardless of career choice) with family support (for fathers especially – to prevent penalizing care). In addition, supervisors need to be trained in using the career customization tool to fully understand its functioning and benefits. Policy makers need to promote a new mindset among companies encouraging them to reconsider their existing career models and to replace them by more flexible approaches to careers. Further, they need to initiate a public debate which questions traditional assumptions about gender roles and careers.