Fields like finance and consulting are notorious for their life-sucking, 80-hour-plus workweeks.
But new research suggests some men are only pretending to work that much — and the fakers are getting just as much praise from management as the true workaholics.
The study, conducted by Erin Reid, Ph.D., assistant professor of organisation at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, focused on employees at an anonymous global strategy consulting firm with a big presence in the US.
The company was known for being demanding of workers’ time. Employees told Reid that the firm expected them to be available for their work at all times and in all places.
Reid reviewed performance evaluations, examined turnover data, and conducted interviews with many of the firm’s employees.
Her findings showed that many men only pretended to be working all the time — when in fact, they were engaged in other activities, like spending time with family.
While 42% of the men that Reid interviewed actually were putting in 60- to 80-hour workweeks, 31% were only logging 50 to 60 hours a week but had figured out ways to deceive their managers into believing they were working more. About a quarter of men were working shorter hours and had revealed their reduced schedules to senior members of the firm.
By contrast, just 11% of the women that Reid interviewed faked longer workdays, and 44% disclosed to managers they were working fewer hours. Both men and women who revealed their reduced schedules were typically penalised with lower performance ratings or getting passed over for promotions.
Reid suggested a few potential reasons why men were more likely than women to fake longer work hours. For one, the firm probably expected women — not men — to have trouble with work-family conflict. While it offered women more formal accommodations for part-time work or less frequent travel (and women took them), men were left to come up with more informal strategies for managing work and family commitments.
Furthermore, because they expected women to experience work-life conflict, managers may have been more vigilant about “policing” women’s time, making it easier for men to fly under the radar.
Reid found there were a number of strategies men used to pretend they were working more. For example, some men cultivated local clients so they would be able to travel less. Others formed bonds with colleagues so that they could help each other fulfil their work responsibilities.
As a result, a senior manager named “Lloyd” (Reid used pseudonyms to protect the employees’ identities) was able to go skiing on a week when he was supposedly working remotely. “I took calls in the morning and in the evening, but I was able to be there for my son when he needed me to be, and I was able to ski five days in a row,” he told Reid.
Reid says this particular study focused on a single firm, so she can’t say for sure that the findings apply more generally. But when she spoke with consultants at other firms, she found they were also expected to be available to work all the time.
The findings are significant for several reasons.
First, it indicates that all workers — not just women — struggle with work-life conflict. The biggest gender difference is in how they deal with that conflict.
“Both men and women have trouble [with work demands],” Reid tells Business Insider. “But they have different options for coping.”
The second important implication is that companies don’t seem to understand what constitutes high performance. “Expecting people to work all the time is not necessary for high-quality work and is problematic for most of the workforce,” Reid says.
Seemingly “ideal” employees like Lloyd, who pretended to work while they were really spending time with their families, still received praise and promotions. It seems as though firms still value the display of commitment above all else. The research also suggests that employees who log excessive hours don’t always produce better results than those who work less.
Yet, in a Harvard Business Review article, Reid writes that when she approached the firm’s leaders with her findings, they showed no desire to modify their expectations of long work hours. Instead, they said a man who reveals his lack of interest in being fully committed to his work is not the kind of employee they want. Moreover, they asked how they might teach women to pretend they were working more, too.
Still, Reid says she’s hopeful that organisations may soon realise that their demands are unrealistic — and change them. Her research, she says, is part of a “big conversation.”
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