Time norms in the workplace: their exclusionary effect and potential for change.

Author:Smith, Belinda M.

Americans who wish to participate in paid work and have a family are confronted with many different barriers to a satisfactory combination of the two. One significant barrier is the prevalence of full-time positions as the dominant form of employment. (1) This article explores the role played by law in perpetuating exclusionary working time norms and the way it also offers some scope for challenging them.

The lack of legitimate part-time jobs limits the options that people have to successfully combine the demands of employment and family. Family responsibilities impose time demands. The long hours of full-time employment positions, and the inflexible schedules that often go with those hours expectations, are not clearly compatible with these family demands. Part-time jobs are generally less available and less legitimate in that they are usually paid at a lower rate than their full-time counterparts, do not offer comparable or even proportional benefits, and amount to contingent employment or the career mommy-track. (2)

If a range of alternative work time options was available and legitimized--in terms of rewards, recognition, responsibility, and interest--as standard full-time employment alone is now legitimized, this would go a long way toward enabling people to balance their employment and family commitments. Existing working time norms act to exclude full participation in both employment and family. (3) The limited options of fulltime employment or poorly rewarded part-time work act to exclude those with caring responsibilities, primarily, but not only, women, (4) from equal and full participation in the workforce. Conversely, until employment options apart from full-time are legitimized, parents who currently feel constrained in their jobs and gendered roles are inhibited from participating equally in caring roles.

A pluralism of working arrangements would not only provide a range of options to meet the diverse needs of workers, but could also offer some unexpected benefits to businesses. A variety of legitimate options would give workers a choice over hours that they currently do not have and would thus help to eliminate the gap that exists between the hours a large proportion of employees would like to work and those they are currently working. (5) Benefits for employers in terms of productivity and employee retention are being explored and realized by some organizations and researchers but still remain largely untapped. (6)

In order to develop a range of alternative employment time options, the link between time and the normative concept of a good worker needs to be loosened. Currently, the number of hours one works is seen to reflect not merely a time commitment, but a commitment to the job, an interest in career advancement, productivity, and more generally one's value as an employee. The lawyer, for instance, who puts in extremely long hours at the firm is held up as heroic and as an ideal member of the profession. (7) The shift-worker who is available to do overtime as needed by the employer, or changes shifts at a moment's notice, is also valued highly for hisapparent commitment to the business. Compliance with time demands generally--hours, scheduling, breaks, leave, etc.--is used as a proxy measure of, among other things, reliability, commitment, and productivity.

In some workplaces and public debates, the assumptions about time and productivity or the good worker are being challenged and transformed. (8) Part-time work, flexible schedules, and even telecommuting place into question the assumptions that a worker must work long, rigidly scheduled hours, within the line of sight of the manager. These initiatives are being driven by different forces and have varying results. Gender equity and retention issues are key considerations in many workplaces, as women become a significant part of the workforce and yet are making demands unlike traditional unencumbered male workers. Globalization and efficiency pressures are also driving experimentation. These developments make clear that the link between time and valuable work is not innate or inevitable. Evidence from European and other industrialized countries, where long employment hours are not so pervasive, reinforces this conclusion. Importantly, these developments also show that experimenting with time norms can improve work and family balance for employees and, at the same time, increase business efficiency. (9)

Whether these experiments throughout workplaces will lead to a widespread reshaping of working time norms is not clear. A pluralization of legitimate working time arrangements that enable workers to combine employment with family or other non-employment responsibilities is in no way guaranteed. What these initiatives do tell us is that understandings of the links between time and worker value are in flux.

One influence on the development of working time norms is law. Law plays various roles in our society, all of which may alter behavior and public norms. The most obvious role of law is regulating behavior by requiring or prohibiting specific conduct. A requirement or prohibition can also act as a public policy statement and influence public attitudes and values about the behavior. In this way the law works to alter norms. Further, law may influence behavior by, for instance, allocating between parties the risk or cost of certain conduct, or by exposing otherwise private conduct in relationships to public scrutiny and judgment.

To illustrate how law can affect working time norms I have chosen to examine, as an example, one particular field of workplace regulation, namely unemployment insurance (U.I.). There are a multitude of laws that regulate the workplace in the United States, from fair labor standards to occupational safety and health regulations, all of which potentially play one or more different roles in influencing behavior and values in relation to working time norms. U.I. regulation is particularly useful as a means of exploring various roles of law because of the subtle and obscured part it plays. It does not explicitly seek to regulate hours, and it would, by most traditional accounts, be seen as irrelevant or neutral in affecting workplace behavior. Yet it is very comprehensive in its coverage, and through its application, interpretation, and cost allocation, it acts to reflect, reinforce, and challenge assumptions and norms about time in the workplace.

In order to determine the role of law in structuring, supporting, or inhibiting the development of working time norms, in this article I aim to reveal the cultural assumptions about the connection between time and worker value; explore how the assumptions are currently reflected, reinforced, or challenged by law in one particular field of employment regulation, U.I.; and comment on what we can learn from this critique about the role of law in this and other fields of regulation in the development of working time norms, the balancing of work and family, and gender equity in the workforce.

This article attempts to do this in three parts. Part I examines time norms in the workplace--what form they take, how they are created and perpetuated, the exclusionary role they perform, and how they are being challenged in some sites. In this part the link is explored between the use of time norms by employers and a traditional and limiting conception of the ideal worker being unencumbered by family responsibilities, a practice that primarily disadvantages women workers. The way the assumptions about time are being challenged and reshaped in some workplaces and public debates is examined as a basis for analyzing and rethinking public policy in relation to employment and family and gender equity in the workplace.

Part II examines the role of law in various forms--expressive, institutional, and doctrinal--in helping or hindering the development of alternative working time practices. More specifically, this part examines the way in which law, using U.I. law as an example, can reflect and reinforce norms and understandings of the relationship between working hours and worker value, and between employment and family. Recent U.I. developments in some states represent at least a minor disruption to traditional time norms, but countertendencies also persist.

Part III briefly explores what we can learn in using this approach to understand the role of law in the maintenance and development of time norms in the workplace. The U.I. system was not established to regulate time norms, and it does not have that explicit function, but it does play a role in their development and can still play a limited role in their reconfiguration. Further, in itself, the critique of this field of regulation provides an insight into how law perpetuates cultural assumptions and provides an approach by which other fields of law could be examined for their effect on working time norms. Such insights should prove useful both for advocates of gender equity and of a better balancing of work and family, and for those who are simply interested in understanding the complex and multiple roles law can play beyond its most obvious outcomes and explicit objectives.


Time is used to structure employment and to control workers. A plethora of time norms shape each job and workplace--how many hours a day or week the employee is expected to work, at what time of day these hours are to be worked, whether payment is per hour, week, or month, what leave is available, what breaks are permitted during the work day, and expectations about overtime or attending out-of-hours events (such as meetings, client functions, or traveling). Some jobs also have longer-term time norms for career progression. As Lotte Bailyn notes, "[s]ince time is one of the easiest aspects of work to measure precisely, it pervades the mechanisms of evaluation and control." (10) The way in which these time demands are established, communicated,...

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