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The Perils of Flex-Washing to Attract Talent

Let’s face it: For companies currently scouring for new talent in this depleted job market, it’s rough out there. There’s a reason so many organizations are extending budgets and rethinking company policy to offer the best candidates higher salaries, perkier benefits, and more flexibility in their schedules and work environments. Attracting top talent is hard. But even if the struggle is real, some of those offerings may not be. It’s called flex-washing – the false advertising or misleading characterization of a company’s flexible work policies – and it’s more than just a harmless exaggeration in the battle to win coveted talent.

How to Identify Flex-Washing

As part of that ongoing fight, some hiring managers have been overzealous in their framing of “flex work.” A salary offer is a fixed, quantifiable number, and health insurance benefits, 401k, and paid time off are objectively measured. But just try pinning down the concept of “flexibility” in a job description. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of wiggle room there.

Keep in mind, remote work or hybrid work may appeal to a potential employee, but neither should be confused with flexible work. Even remote and hybrid models prescribe (or at least clearly define) the terms of a schedule or work environment, whereas the definition of flexible work suggests a more dynamic agreement. But it’s that very fluidity that can allow a hiring manager to take certain liberties in over-selling a position’s true flexibility.

Employees should be prepared to pepper a hiring professional with pointed questions about flex work. What are a company’s specific expectations for days and hours worked? In the office or remotely? Unlimited vacation sounds great, but how does it affect workflows? Are all these terms subject to change? Do they differ by team or manager? The more specific answers you nail down, the less likely you’ll feel later that you were sold a bill of goods.

Why Flex-Washing Hurts Your Organization and Brand

Just as any business with long-term aspirations wants to avoid over-promising and risking the dissatisfaction of its consumers, hiring organizations should be mindful of painting a too-rosy picture for job candidates for similar reasons.

Judging by the reaction to line-in-the-sand edicts from leadership at organizations such as Goldman Sachs – where only about half of the company’s 10,000 employees showed up at headquarters after being ordered back into the office last February – good employees with solid prospects wouldn’t likely take well to bait-and-switch flex-washing tactics.

Business must change with the times, and organizations reserve the right to update their policies – particularly when adjustments must be made based on extenuating circumstances. (See: Covid.) But a company that promises flexibility and isn’t prepared to follow through runs the risk of productivity issues, credibility loss with workers, and even employee churn. Moreover, damage to an organization’s reputation could make future hiring efforts even dicier.

How to Avoid Flex-Washing

Companies and hiring professionals that set out to intentionally mislead job candidates are probably rare. More likely, in a tight labor market, in which top talent is at an absolute premium, organizations are eager to put their best foot forward whenever they get a crack at a strong candidate. But as we’ve outlined above, there can be significant consequences from going too far to sell a prospect on a job.

To keep from crossing the line into flex-washing, start with a clear vision of where the company ultimately wants to go and be transparent about communicating it to your employees. If you’re reacting to changing pandemic conditions, let your workers know the challenges, disclose that the company may have to dynamically adjust and admit that no policy can account for every unknown circumstance. Review policies quarterly, stay agile in your decision making and keep staff in the loop.

You won’t seal the deal with every hot prospect, and you can’t please every employee with your policy. But, by and large, employees will respect and remain more loyal to an honest company, and your purposeful transparency will likely make them feel less put upon if and when changes need to be made.

Interested in learning more about how to manage your workforce? Check out PeopleCaddie’s blog.

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