Management for the masses: Will work suffer when employees go back to school?

Indiana University Kelley School of Business  8.31.10Many companies encourage their workers to obtain advanced degrees. The employee will enroll in school part time, usually for a master’s degree, while continuing to work full time and the company may offer tuition assistance or even time off for studies. Conventional wisdom holds that this represents a good investment for employers. Workers gain advanced skills while also developing loyalty toward their company, meaning those new abilities stay with the organization and benefit both worker and employer. These programs are indeed popular: the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports more than 2/3 of US companies employing more than 100 workers offer some type of tuition reimbursement benefit for graduate school.

While a number of studies confirm the positive long-term effect of tuition reimbursement programs, few have looked at the short-term effects. When an employee adds a significant outside activity such as graduate school to his/her life, what is the effect on job performance?

A group of researchers set out to investigate what they called School/Work Conflict (SWC). In two studies, they examined the effect on work performance and interpersonal work relationships for people enrolled in graduate degree programs while continuing to work full time. They found, as might be expected, that the added requirements of school did result in short-term performance deficits at work, and that employees did report more stress related to SWC while in school. More troubling, though, was the finding that while worker performance improved when school ended, interpersonal conflict with co-workers that developed during the period of schooling did not. It seems co-workers are less forgiving of SWC than are managers.

The researchers suggested that offering flexible scheduling and reduced job obligations, particularly when school requirements are most intense, could reduce this problem. Perhaps co-worker resentment is caused by expectations that the student/employee will continue to engage in the workplace as they always have, and it is the disconnect between past and current performance that causes resentment – and negative interpersonal relationships – to develop. Clarifying expectations of all workers – student and non-student – during this period is important. It is important that co-workers recognize that the student is not receiving special treatment while colleagues “pick up the slack” for them.  Simply transferring the students’ work to peers without compensation or explanation could make bad feelings between co-workers even worse.

Certainly employees and their companies both benefit from the expansion of knowledge and skills that accompany a master’s degree. With a little adjustment during the period of schooling, long-term effects on co-worker relationships can be managed. However, it seems that the company will have to accept a short-term loss in employee performance in order to gain the long-term benefits of an advanced degree.

Wyland, R. L., Lester, S. W., Mone, M. A., & Winkel, D. E. (2013).  Work and school at the same time?  A conflict perspective of the work-school interface.  Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 20, 346-357.