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Hidden Families, Hidden Conflicts: Does Your Organization Value all Types of Families?

Work-family conflict and work-life balance have been buzzed about in organizations for the last several decades. Indeed, in many successful companies, there is a heavy investment in offering programs that give employees more job-related flexibility, time for personal activities, and convenience (e.g., on-site childcare or fitness facilities). By promoting a positive work-life culture, employers are able to maintain a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce, which contributes to the bottom line. But, are they missing something when it comes to addressing issues of work and family? Our research says they are, and that it could be a big problem from a diversity and inclusion perspective.

Recently, my colleague, Katina Sawyer, Ph.D. (The George Washington University School of Business) and I conducted a study in which we interviewed employees who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) about their work-family experiences within their current organization. Our study was motivated, in part, by the observation that, since its inception more than thirty years ago, research on work-family conflict in organizations has assumed that employees belong to a traditional, heterosexual family structure (i.e., one man/one woman). As such, our goal was to determine whether previous research on employees’ experiences of work-family conflict applied similarly to employees with LGB families. What we found was that, although LGB employees naturally experience many of the same work-family conflicts that their heterosexual colleagues do (e.g., work time interfering with family time, feeling unable to separate from work at home), they experienced a range of additional conflicts related to their stigmatized family identity (e.g., not feeling able to take advantage of family-related benefits at work for fear of revealing their same-sex relationship; feeling unable to bring spouses to work events; feeling unable to discuss family-related challenges with a supervisor that impact one’s work life). What’s more, we found that these experiences were, in many cases, similar for employees with other family-related stigmas (e.g., employees with spouses with mental and physical illnesses, mixed-race couples).


Although LGB employees naturally experience many of the same work-family conflicts that their heterosexual colleagues do, they experienced a range of additional conflicts related to their stigmatized family identity.


As a part of our analysis, we sought to delve deeper into what was causing these unique experiences of work-family conflict and how employees in our sample coped with them. In particular, we found that work environments which signaled to employees that their family “type” was less accepted compared to more traditional families were more likely to experience this form of “stigma-based” conflict. For example, participants reported that lacking an explicit invitation for “partners,” instead of “spouses,” to family-related work events or the absence of a comprehensive benefits package for same-sex partners often led to perceptions that their family was unwelcome or less accepted in their workplace. Similarly, hearing coworkers discuss issues of “family” in a very traditional way, without considering that families might not all take the same form, also led participants to report uneasiness over how receptive their coworkers and supervisors would be to their specific work-family challenges.

For instance, one participant reported, “[Being in a same-sex couple] creates a lot of new work-family struggles. If we do [adopt a child], I am uncertain about talking with my supervisor about it. Like asking for an earlier schedule or some time off at the beginning of a placement or something like that. People are used to this when people get married and have a kid. Because we are a gay couple, I don't see a lot of structure for that conversation.” In the same vein, another participant reported, “A couple of my colleagues have brought their spouses to events when we have an interesting speaker, but I totally hesitate to bring my wife with me. I think it would just be awkward not only for me and my wife but for everyone else. My wife even asked me about it. She said, ‘I know it would just be incredibly awkward.’ I think that's really sad and maybe I should just say, ‘No holds barred, we are just going to do this.’ But, the aftermath of doing that is something that I really have to consider because it's a small place.”

Importantly, most of our sample was “out” about their personal sexual orientation at work. In other words, their coworkers knew that they were lesbian, gay, or bisexual. But, regardless of this fact, they didn’t always feel confident that bringing their partner to events was a good idea. Many felt that having their family “on display” ran the risk of their coworkers thinking that they were trying to make a political statement or attempting to be too brazen about their sexual orientation in the workplace.

When these conflicts arose, our participants reported dealing with them in a myriad of ways. First, in contrast to their heterosexual colleagues, who felt more able to freely mix their work and family lives when convenient, they naturally felt forced to separate work and family to avoid the risk of sanction. As an example, one participant reported, “I don't really feel like there is a place for [my partner] in my work environment that he could come visit me. I know everyone here really well, and so I'm able to navigate the ‘sensitivities’ of the people here. I know there are a couple of people who would make it uncomfortable that he is gay…if he randomly appeared here, he would have to reserve himself. That's a terrible way of saying it. But I could imagine that being the case.”

Other individuals chose to suppress information about their family life at work, declining opportunities to discuss family vacations or weekend plans. In one case, a participant’s company encouraged employees to post pictures of their family in a collage at work, ostensibly to promote work-family friendliness. However, this individual struggled with what to do, stating, “I just felt that they wouldn't, I mean a photo of my family would actually be considered almost aggressive, I think, on behalf of the institution. Because it would be me kind of trying to make an ‘activist point’ about the very narrow definition of family that was circulating around the whole event. I just felt like what they were asking for when they were using the word ‘family,’ they weren't including me.” Finally, employees also dealt with these conflicts by being careful about which family issues they talked about at work. This meant that many had to evaluate who was “safe” and who was “questionable” with regard to the risk they took in discussing family issues at work. In explanation, one participant noted, “Where I work isn't accepting of alternative lifestyles, so I don't talk about family other than my children. I don't talk about my partner except with a few people I trust”.

As one can imagine, the result of these attempts to manage one’s stigmatized family identity at work was often stressful for employees. In contrast to their heterosexual colleagues, individuals often reported feeling alienated from their coworkers and lacking a sense of pride and dignity. Moreover, they also felt a sense of fragmentation between their work and family identities – like they couldn’t truly connect with themselves at work or outside of work because of their need to suppress a core part of who they were at work. Such situations also engendered in them a heightened need to remain vigilant at work, as they attempted to gauge who they could authentically discuss family-related information with.


Employees with different types of families often face different challenges in managing the intersection of their work and family lives.


Overall, our research uncovered an issue that is long overdue in conversations about work and family – that employees with different types of families often face different challenges in managing the intersection of their work and family lives. So, what does this mean for your organization? Well, even if your company supports work-life initiatives, if you aren’t attempting to understand the work-family struggles of those in less traditional families, you could be unknowingly missing the mark for an ever-growing segment of your company’s workforce. Fortunately, there are things you can do about it.

What can you do to make your workplace more inclusive?

1. Placing an explicit focus on inclusivity in all of your work-family initiatives can help make it clear to employees with non-traditional families that they are welcome. This means ensuring that all assumptive language and imagery be removed in communications (e.g., including pictures only of male and female partners in flyers promoting new work-family initiatives) and extending invitations to all significant others when announcing family-related work events.

2. Educating your workforce on different types of families at work can promote more inclusive views of “family” and foster awareness surrounding language that signals a narrow-mindedness about which families “count.”

3. Examining family benefits packages may also reveal blind spots in your organization’s level of family-inclusiveness.

4. Finally, interviewing employees with different family types about what would make them feel more included can help identify ways in which to enrich the work lives of those from various family backgrounds.

Continuing to ignore the unique challenges faced by employees who experience family stigma at work doesn’t mean that you won’t experience the problems that arise as a result of these challenges. In fact, the opposite is true. Only by addressing these issues head-on can you truly be at the forefront of ensuring a positive work-life culture for all of your employees. Keep in mind that this isn’t only about same-sex couples – it could extend to any kind of family that feels potentially stigmatized at work (e.g., interracial couples, couples in which a partner or child is struggling with mental health or addiction issues, interreligious couples, etc.). In all, if you don’t know what kinds of families your employees belong to, you can’t understand the full scope of challenges they might face. If you aren’t aware of all of these challenges, your work-family solutions will always be lacking. One of our participants said it best when she stated:

“I don’t think our organizations want to hurt us. They just don’t know that we’re here.”


Christian Thoroughgood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!

Photo credit: Miki Fath, Gaelle Marcel, and Rawpixel on Unsplash

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