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PharMerger is a pharmaceutical company with significant global presence in six continents and premises in 45 countries. The UK has two research and development sites, one of which is the subject of this case study, and 14 commercial and production locations. The history of this site can be framed in terms of three distinct eras and it is these which have shaped the culture of the current organisation to a great extent. Founded in the mid-1970s, the original organisation was taken over by a foreign company at the end of the 1980s and then merged with a UK-based global giant in the mid-1990s. However, there is not a clear starting point to the organisation’s adoption of family-friendly working; the most senior HR respondent described the site’s familyfriendly emphasis as having ‘grown progressively, it’s not as if it “came in” at any point’. Employees have had flexitime working arrangements since the early 1980s but specific and explicit family-friendly employment policies were not introduced until shortly after the merger with the pharmaceutical giant. These policies are perceived by employees to be indicative of the larger company’s desire to control and systematise working patterns. Although employees were in agreement that PharMerger is more family-friendly than the original company, this was widely attributed to the passage of time, rather than to divergent approaches of the two companies. Any company aspiring to attract and retain the best employees (as PharMerger certainly does) now has to provide an environment which is more family-friendly than in previous decades. Interviews with HR professionals revealed that, to some extent, competitors in the pharmaceutical industry whose employment packages include a high level of family-friendly provision provide the impetus for ongoing improvement of PharMerger’s policies. (This is also seen in other industries; McKee et al. (2000) found that oil and gas industry employers compete with each other when setting policies through a process informed by knowledge gathered through both informal and formal networking within the sector.) HR professionals were representative of the corporate perspective in their commonly held view that provision was generous, went beyond statutory requirements and employees should be satisfied with it.

Managers tended to concur, especially those with responsibility for several members of staff, rather than just one or two. Other research has examined the role managers’ play as gatekeepers to policy implementation (Bond et al., 2002; Yeandle et al., 2003; Dex and Scheibl, 2002) and this study confirmed previous findings about the decisive nature of their discretion. Respondents frequently described how it was ‘down to the managers’ and how they used policies and stated that the company itself had reached a limit in terms of policies that could be put in place. Managers described feeling constrained to a certain extent by policies; typically in the sense that policy provision was too generous in practice, if policies were fully implemented this threatened to affect their ability to deliver against somewhat inflexible and high targets.

Many employees were parents who needed their working patterns to fit around school hours; flexible working policies enabled them to leave the premises early and recommence work in the early evening. These opportunities, used almost exclusively by women, carried no penalty for administrative staff but it was typical for more senior staff to have to work in an officially parttime capacity if they wanted this level of flexibility. They also had to be willing to allow work to intrude in their home life outside their contracted hours (e.g. they were expected to access email remotely and be available on the telephone). Individual employees also had demanding and inflexible targets to reach and these, in some cases, prevented them from taking advantage of policies. One scientist, who occasionally needed to attend hospital appointments with a disabled child and thus required additional flexibility, reported that the pressure to reach her targets was a powerful disincentive to using policies. Her preferred option was to use annual leave instead. The pressure of targets strongly influenced her eventual decision to leave the company. This employee challenged key facets of the PharMerger culture, such as the ‘ideal worker type’, described elsewhere in the literature and evident in both organisations.

The ideal worker type is closely associated with beliefs about professionalism which ‘sustain definitions of selfhood that elevate the workplace over home life’(Kerfoot, 2002: 93). Employees conforming to this type did not tend to structure their working day explicitly around family responsibilities and prioritised ‘getting the job done’ over keeping to fairly set working hours. Respondents appeared to accept that ongoing career advancement required conforming to this type and exhibiting willingness to relocate, travel and be available at home outside working hours. In PharMerger the type was stronger (than in EngCorp), more evident and a source of workforce homogeneity but, common to both organisations, policies appeared to effect very little shift in this facet. This was because (a) organisational survival was perceived to depend on it and (b) the type is closely associated with the ideal worker image, how they want others to see them, and their preferred identity, how they see themselves (Hatch and Schultz, 1997; Whetten and Godfrey, 1998). Significantly, female managers also contested the organisation’s claim to be family-friendly on the grounds that career progression was impeded by taking up policies such as working slightly reduced hours. Career-oriented women whose working hours were routinely impacted by caring responsibilities (for example, they worked on a part-time or flexible hours basis) considered that they had to minimise family concerns in order to conform to the ‘ideal worker type’ referred to earlier. This indicates to what extent this construct was bound up with stereotypically ‘male’ characteristics – although many men in PharMerger were also in frequent need of a measure of flexibility so they could undertake albeit more limited caring responsibilities. The other case study concerned an engineering company, EngCorp, which also had an international presence. The two business units included in the study are both sited in the town regarded as the company’s global headquarters. EngCorp has a reputation in the surrounding area of being a ‘caring’ company which ‘puts people first’, and many respondents considered their jobs to be the best they had ever had because of their employment conditions. Not all employees were familiar with the phrase ‘family-friendly’, however, most referred to the flexibility which was integral to working for EngCorp, and gave examples of the understanding repeatedly shown by the company for their family responsibilities. Parental leave policies enabled parents to negotiate nineday fortnight arrangements (by using unpaid days) and annualised hours arrangements gave them more time away from work during school holidays.

Respondents were aware of a strong sense of company identity and many described the presence of a definable and pervasive culture which they attributed to shared and recognised values. It is important to make a distinction here between ‘root’ culture and more diffuse values. The ‘emic’ or insider view of culture tends to conflate and confuse these two terms, whereas the role of the researcher in these case studies was to identify the unconscious and underlying assumptions that determine insiders’ values about which, it is possible, few are aware. As was found in the PharMerger case study, several individuals clearly dissented to the recognisable majority view of the company. Managers and employees tended to hold somewhat different views of policy implementation and women’s experiences could markedly contrast with those of their male counterparts. The company described itself as ‘male-dominated’ and considered its family-friendly policies to be a significant aspect of its deliberative approach to attracting and retaining female engineers. (There is a parallel here with PharMerger’s perceived need to maintain a high enough level of family-friendly employment provision to stay competitive in the global market for talent.) However, female employees who were ambitious in their careers judged their progression would be hampered, regardless of available policies, if they were not working according to the ideal worker type and following a different pattern to men in equivalent positions. The internalisation of this type was evident in interviews with women from both companies, even when work conflicted with their domestic responsibilities (and with men’s who were primary carers, for example, widowers), given that work’s intrusion into their home life went unchallenged, particularly if they were working part-time.

Questions

1 What cultural changes would be necessary to make the work–life balance policies in the case study organisations truly deliver all they promise?

2 In what ways do the work–life balance cultures of the two case study organisations seem at odds with their policies?

3 How does the concept of the ‘ideal worker type’ help to explain workplace work–life balance cultures?

4 Discuss the implications of work–life balance policies and cultures for women’s and men’s careers and for the redistribution of household and family labour?

 

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