EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

DSM, the Netherlands: Increasing the labour market participation of underrepresented groups – women


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increasing labour market participation of underrepresented groups

DSM, a group of companies in the chemical sector, has always had the reputation of a ‘male company’. Motivated by social developments and changing legislation,DSM decided to make the company more attractive for women. The company introduced working time accounts in 2002 as one of the means of reaching this goal. Although the original goal for working time accounts was ‘employer branding’, improvements also have been made in efficiency.

Organisational background

DSM Limburg BV has 5,166 employees within the DSM business groups with plants in the south of Limburg. DSM is under the collective labour agreement of DSM Limburg BV. Founded by the government in 1902, the company was formerly known as Dutch State Mines. DSM has evolved in the past century from a mining industry to basic chemical and petrochemical and, since the mid eighties, specialising in the chemical industry.

In 2002, of the 5,166 employees who had permanent contracts with DSM Limburg BV, 2,249 were in primary production, and 2,917 were in supporting processes and services. The female-to-male ratio was 20/80.

Dialogue forms an integrated part of the working time account policy at DSM, and (decentralised) works councils and labour organisations are involved in the decision-making and implementation process. More than 70% of employees are members of labour organisations. The regulation concerning the working time account is a part of the collective labour agreement of DSM Limburg BV.

Description of the initiative

The framework and implementation of working time accounts within DSM Limburg BV has three main features:

Social Dialogue

Since the first of January 2002 a department or unit within DSM can choose to work with flexible, individual working times. The main condition is that a large majority of staff, a minimum of 60 to 65%, wants to work in this way or finds it acceptable for others to do so. Based on evaluation, the rate of consent is measured again after one year to determine if there is still a large majority in favour.

The core of the system is formed by agreements between managers and staff. These agreements must be the result of a balanced consideration of different factors: department goals (fluctuations in operations and the corresponding staff needed in order to achieve suitable results), individual wishes of employees (according to private circumstances) and dialogue among co-workers.

The agreements form the roster of the department, which is then the basis for the output and attendance. Some flexibility between work and private situations is expected. The system is based on responsibility and trust.


The time-frame encompasses two regulations: the ‘standard’ regulation and the ‘dialogue’ regulation. The standard regulation provides the following guidelines: the time frame is Monday to Friday from 07.00 to 19.00 hours, the average working week is 40 hours for full-time employees and minimum and maximum working times are stipulated according to the standard and ‘dialogue’ regulation of the law on working times (a daily minimum of zero and a maximum of ten hours, a weekly maximum of 45 hours and an average of 40 hours per week for 52 weeks).

The ‘dialogue’ regulation provides the following guidelines:

  • Managers and staff can agree, on an individual level and initiated by the employee, that the time-frame of a day is made one hour earlier or later (the time-frame lies between 06.00 and 20.00 hours);
  • Managers and staff can agree, when initiated by the employee, that Saturday is part of the working week;
  • Minimum and maximum working times within the ‘dialogue’ regulation, are stipulated according to the standard and ‘dialogue’ regulation of the law on working times: a daily minimum of 0 and a maximum of 10 hours, a weekly maximum of 48 hours and an average of 40 hours per week for 52 weeks.

The ‘dialogue’ regulation is evaluated separately from the standard regulation. If this regulation doesn’t work in line with the principles, the regulation can be altered or cancelled entirely.

Rules of play

To make working time accounts within DSM successful, some rules of play are agreed upon related to self-registration, working overtime and dialogue:

Registration: employees register their own time, note the surplus or deficit against the norm time and hand this in every week. In consultation with the manager, the employee can also book time worked outside the DSM premises. This means it is not ‘attendance’ but ‘results’ that are important. The idea is to facilitate an individual registration tool in time. The surplus and deficit working hours are registered on a balance chart for the department. In case of sickness, holidays and days taken up for education, a norm time is calculated of eight hours. The system is based on trust. There are no separate control procedures. If an employee misuses the trust, the direct manager will discuss the issue with the employee.

Working overtime: within the time-frame and under the conditions of the flexible working hours, no overtime is financially compensated. Only when an assignment is given to work outside the time-frame, is overtime paid out.

Dialogue: to work successfully with flexible working hours, it is necessary for managers and staff to consult each other on a regular basis, on department level or in bilaterals. Subjects include output (target and realisation), difficulties in working times and possible solutions and possibilities to compensate for a surplus or deficit in working hours.


DSM Limburg BV has illustrated that a number of conditions must be met to make a system of working time accounts a success. The need for working time accounts must be mutual. There also must be a basis of trust between a manager and staff. A transparent and accessible registration system can help to facilitate this. Managers and staff need to be able to make a translation from company goals to individual results. In addition, they must be able to concentrate on working times: the workload must fluctuate in order for a down slope to follow a peak.

The HR department and the works council have the task of safeguarding conditions of the process. The HR department implements the policy according to the best practice developed in several pilot tests. This department also has the role of being the facilitator of the process. The HR department participates in work parties or meetings on the progress of the process and generates data for evaluation. The HR department operates as point of contact and discusses possible problems and solutions.

The works councils monitor, on a decentralised level, the practice of the working time accounts, especially the practice of the ‘dialogue’ regulation. To monitor the process, the works council receives reports on this issue on a regular basis; for example, a periodic report on the hours worked on Saturday.

Based on the before and after tests of three pilot studies, it is clear that both employees and management are positive about the implementation of working time accounts. DSM scores better on the after tests on several items. The possibilities to combine work and private life are highly appreciated. In general, the attractiveness of DSM as an employer has increased. Furthermore, the efficiency of the work has improved. Due to the steering on output, it is assumed that the system has a positive effect on the productivity of employees; however, this has not been monitored yet.

The initial goal of the policy was to hire more women. In 2005, the overall female-to-male ratio was not changed. This ratio might have changed in departments where the system of working time accounts was introduced, but this has not been monitored. Progress, however, has been made in the number of women in higher management positions. One of the executives (a board member) is a woman and 9% of the female employees hold a high position in management, versus 5% in 2002. In the yearly plan of every business group, targets are set for the recruitment, appointment and promotion of women to higher management positions.

There is more insight into problems in the organisation and peaks and valleys in the workload are handled in a flexible way. A strong point is that the trust between employees and management and among co-workers has grown. Employees and management also see an improvement in communication in all fields. The mutual benefits of this system and the dialogue as a means to make agreements (with the initiative for certain agreements lying solely with the employee) help prevent conflicts from occurring.

Exemplary and contextual factors

In a context of changing legislation, especially the implementation of the ‘Wet Arbeid en Zorg’ (Law on Labour and Care) and social developments, DSM decided to make the organisation more attractive for women. Based on the ‘Arbeidstijdenwet’ (Law on Working Times) DSM made it possible for employees to handle working times in a flexible way, making it easier for them to combine work, family and other responsibilities. Because of the successful outcomes (in more fields than anticipated), DSM has significantly broadened its approach with the Diversity and Flexibility programme.

The DSM policy on flexible working hours is exemplary in that DSM Limburg BV addresses some of the key success factors and conditions for a successful implementation, for example, a dialogue as an integrated part of the policy, a transparent time-frame and accompanying rules of play.

Mariska den Hoedt, TNO, Hoofdorp

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