Why Showing Your Face at Work Matters

  • Kimberly Elsbach and Daniel Cable
  • June 19, 2012

Although it’s increasingly common, telecommuting may be hazardous to employee evaluations. But employers can take steps to ensure that remote workers are judged fairly.

These days, more and more corporate employees are working at least part of the time from home offices. Working from home, or other types of remote work arrangements such as using a drop-in work center, can be beneficial to both employees and companies. However, our research suggests that these nontraditional arrangements also have hidden pitfalls. Employees who work remotely may end up getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their colleagues in the office — even if they work just as hard and just as long.

The difference is what we call passive face time. By that we are not referring to active interactions with coworkers or clients, but merely to being seen in the workplace. To be credited with passive face time you need only be observed at work; no information is required about what you are doing or how well you are doing it.

Even when in-office and remote employees are equally productive, our research suggests their supervisors might evaluate them differently because of differences in their passive face time. Especially in white-collar settings, the presence or absence of passive face time may influence evaluations used to determine the fitness of employees for specific tasks such as team leadership. As Jack and Suzy Welch wrote in a 2007 BusinessWeek column:

Companies rarely promote people into leadership roles who haven’t been consistently seen and measured. It’s a familiarity thing, and it’s a trust thing. We’re not saying that the people who get promoted are stars during every “crucible” moment at the office, but at least they’re present and accounted for. And their presence says: Work is my top priority. I’m committed to this company. I want to lead. And I can.

Related Research

K. D. Elsbach, D. M. Cable and J. W. Sherman, “How Passive ‘Face Time’ Affects Perceptions of Employees: Evidence of Spontaneous Trait Inference,” Human Relations 63, no. 6 (June 2010): 735-760.

For the last decade we’ve studied the concept of passive face time from the perspective of hundreds of corporate workers, including both supervisors and subordinates. (Details of our research were published in the June 2010 issue of Human Relations. See “Related Research.”) We used observation, unstructured interviews and tightly controlled experiments to gather information about how passive face time affects employee evaluations. This data led us to three key findings.