By Martha C. White
May 6, 2015

Here’s the depressing truth: If you want flexibility at work, you’ll have to do it on the DL, especially if you’re a younger worker.

The number of companies that let people take career breaks or practice job-sharing both fell last year, according to an employer survey conducted by the by the Families and Work Institute and Society for Human Resource Management.

And even for the “lucky” ones who work at a company that offers these kinds of perks, two new studies find that pursuing a flexible work schedule to juggle kids, other caregiving needs or personal objectives can actually harm your career.

Consulting company EY (the ones formerly known as Ernst & Young) found in a survey that almost 10% of American workers have “suffered a negative consequence as a result of having a flexible work schedule.” These workers have been reprimanded, denied promotions or raises. In some cases, they have lost their jobs. The rate of negative repercussions for young workers is even higher, with 15% reporting experiences like this.

“Millennials are moving into management at the same time that they are having children, facing increased demands at both work and home,” says EY global diversity and inclusiveness officer Karyn Twaronite. Since they’re juggling more in their professional and personal lives, this sets them up for more potential conflicts. Millennials also are more likely to be in two-earner households, Twaronite points out, which can make navigating logistics like childcare more complicated.

“Depending upon the work environment, people across all ages and levels of seniority could inevitably face some growing pains as workplaces try to become more flexible,” she says.

A study of 115 employees at a consulting firm with a hard-charging, workaholic culture conducted by Boston University professor Erin Reid comes to a similar conclusion: The consultants who put their heads down and plowed through 80-hour workweeks without asking to take time off for a kid’s dance recital or to chaperone a field trip were rewarded with good performance reviews. The ones who did speak up and ask for flexibility, even if they were getting all their work done, and even if they were asking for benefits they were legally allowed to take like family leave after the birth of a child, were perceived as slackers.

“We fall into the trap of thinking everyone is always available all the time,” one manager told Reid in an interview. Reid points out in her analysis that this viewpoint rewards loyalty and commitment more than actual knowledge or skills, which has the effect of leaving behind the talented people who can’t — or won’t — make themselves available 24-7.

But Reid says some employees were able to keep their jobs, reputations and sanity. They did this by carving out time for themselves — by selecting clients closer to home, making a deal with a colleague to cover for each other, finding ways to multi-task when telecommuting — without making a big about it. In fact, one worker told Reid, “No one knows where I am.” If he took a day to take his kid to go skiing, he didn’t advertise that or ask for permission. Reid characterizes this as “passing.” While they’re not faking the quality of the work they do, they don’t broadcast the fact that they’re not committed to their jobs 100% of the time.

It’s crummy to have to keep your personal life — and the belief that it’s OK to have one — under wraps at work, but for people who work in a certain kind of corporate culture, it may be the most prudent thing to do. Reid offers some observations about how people who do this successfully go about it: They get all of their work done, first of all, and don’t let clients or higher-ups get the impression that they’re anything less than 24-7 players. They form alliances with colleagues, so if someone needs to step in and pinch hit when a personal crisis strikes, nobody up the corporate food chain needs to be the wiser.

Although people who revealed that their job wasn’t their top priority were punished with lower performance reviews, their co-workers who took time for themselves but kept quiet about their behind-the-scenes maneuvering were reviewed as favorably as the employees who really did crank out those 80-hour workweeks.

“The personal information that people hid or shared… affected whether they passed or revealed,” Reid writes.

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