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November 19, 2014 | Volume 8 | Number 10
November 19, 2014
By Jade S. Jenkins, PhD
As the nature of work continues to change in the 21st century, workers will likely continue to struggle with the friction imposed by juggling both work and family demands. Without access to resources that may help employees manage their lives at work and at home, efficiency in both domains may be compromised.
Recently, Stacy Ehrisman-Mickle—an Atlanta-based immigration attorney—received widespread media attention after a judge refused to postpone a court hearing that had been scheduled during her maternity leave. Unable to make childcare arrangements, Mrs. Ehrisman-Mickle consulted with a pediatrician. She was given approval to strap her four-week old daughter to a chest carrier, cover her with a blanket and bring her to court with her on the day of the hearing.
In court, the judge agreed to postpone the hearing until after Mrs. Ehrisman-Mickle’s maternity leave had concluded, but not until after he proceeded to scold her over her infant’s presence in court. This incident is symptomatic of an asymmetric expectation shared by many organizations: that workers are expected to be flexible and available to meet work demands, but organizations are not obligated to assist employees with family obligations. In some circumstances, co-workers, supervisors and organizational culture at large may be guilty of promoting flexibility stigma.
What is Flexibility Stigma?
Across many organizations, various types of work-life policies have been made available to employees as a means of helping them “balance” their work and family lives. The availability of family-friendly policies and benefits has been a growing characteristic of personnel policies, recruitment efforts and efforts to improve organizational image. However, use of these benefits and policies is associated with a trade-off in which employees are better able to manage family demands at the cost of negative work-related reactions from others. Thus, flexibility stigma is “a type of discrimination triggered whenever an employee signals a need for workplace flexibility due to family responsibilities” (Rudman & Mescher, 2013, p. 4).
One reason why flexibility stigma occurs is because employees who request or utilize family-friendly policies and benefits may not be perceived as meeting prescribed standards of the “ideal worker.” Characteristics of the ideal worker include consistently being committed to working long hours and preventing family matters from interfering with one’s commitment to the job (Williams, 2001). Thus, workers who request or utilize family-friendly policies and benefits may be devalued because they are viewed as being more distracted than workers with few or no family responsibilities.
Flexibility stigma may also be informed by the overlap between the characteristics of the ideal worker and characteristics prescribed to the traditional masculine gender role (Rudman & Mescher, 2013). Standards that characterize the ideal worker are catered to men, who have traditionally assumed primary breadwinner roles within the family. The flexibility stigma impacts both male workers and female workers. However, male workers with family responsibilities may be more likely to be viewed as having less agency than male workers without family responsibilities. This perceived agency penalty may occur if their family-related requests or policy utilization signals that they are “feminine” or “acting like women.”
Consequences of Flexibility Stigma
Flexibility stigma may be associated with a variety of negative outcomes. Workers who perceive that their workplaces are not supportive of families tend to report low job satisfaction, low organizational commitment, high work-life conflict and low use of available work-family arrangements (see Cook, 2009; Dikkers, Geurts, Kinnunen, Kompier, & Taris, 2007; Mauno, Kinnunen, & Ruokolainen, 2006). Research has also revealed that workers who do choose to participate in family-friendly programs are especially likely to suffer career consequences—despite the fact that they were typically more productive and efficient than colleagues who did not participate in such programs (Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996).
Workers may experience negative health outcomes as well. Perceiving that one is not welcome to request or participate in family-friendly programs can lead to physiological stress responses that may have downstream effects on health. For example, perceiving that one’s workplace is not supportive of families has been associated with high self-reported distress (Mauno et al., 2005) and low employee well-being (Thompson & Prottas, 2006). Workers who have unsupportive managers may also lose 30 minutes of sleep in comparison to workers who have family-supportive managers (Berkman et al., 2010).
Though research linking family-supportive perceptions and health behaviors is still developing, research on broad discrimination experiences also suggest that such experiences may decrease self-control resources. This effect, in turn, may lead to more participation in unhealthy behaviors (e.g., smoking) and decrease participation in healthy behaviors, such as illness management (Pascoe & Richman, 2009).
The interpersonal dynamics of the workplace may also be strained by flexibility stigma. Workers with family responsibilities may feel uncomfortable or unwelcome when working for organizations that do not offer or advertise family-friendly programs. Furthermore, although other organizations may offer and advertise family-friendly programs, workers may be pressured to not take advantage of these policies because doing so may increase their colleagues’ workload (Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996). When colleagues do receive an increase in their workload following a co-worker’s use of family-friendly policies and benefits, they may grow to resent their co-worker and perceive him or her as a recipient of preferential treatment.
Furthermore, colleagues may feel that workers without spousal care, elder care or childcare responsibilities are the “real” ones being discriminated against. In some cases, workers may begin to monitor the activities of colleagues who participate in family-friendly programs because they fear or are quick to suspect policy abuse (Kirby & Krone, 2002).
Addressing Flexibility Stigma
The consequences of flexibility stigma are significant enough to undermine the efforts of organizations and employees in a variety of ways. The following recommendations consider multiple perspectives to discourage flexibility stigma in the workplace and to minimize or prevent negative outcomes.
Employees. Employees interested in taking advantage of family-friendly policies and benefits should not be afraid of asking their supervisors about the availability of these programs. Although supervisors may seem unsupportive of these policies if they do not regularly discuss them as options, it’s possible that they simply may not be knowledgeable of these policies (Bond & Wise, 2003; Casper, Fox, Sitzmann, & Landy, 2004). If that’s the case, supervisors should still know who to consult in order to find the information their subordinates are seeking.
Employees should also strive to actively contribute to a supportive work-family culture. Though it may be tempting to monitor co-workers perceived as coming in late or leaving early, chances are that these co-workers have received approval for these arrangements. Furthermore, their supervisors and other relevant personnel are likely already aware of these arrangements, as it is their responsibility to determine what practices would be fair to the employee and the organization as a whole. Should any workload issues arise following a co-worker’s participation in a family-friendly arrangement, employees should be encouraged to seek out their supervisors as a means of creating more manageable plans of action.
Supervisors. Supervisors should educate themselves on the existing family-friendly policies and benefits available in their organization. Popular examples of such policies include family-leave policies, flexible work options and dependent-care benefits (Morgan & Milliken, 1992). In addition to educating themselves, supervisors should make it a point to increase awareness of these programs through conversations with subordinates.
Subordinates may observe supervisor behaviors as a point of reference when determining what behaviors and actions are appropriate in the workplace (Koch & Binnewies, 2014). Thus, supervisors should be aware of how any actions or behaviors indicative of their attitudes towards family-friendly programs may discourage workers from participating in programs that would benefit them and the organization. For example, supervisors who encourage participation in family-friendly programs may inadvertently be sending mixed messages to subordinates if they also reference work-centric employees as role models (Kirby, 2000).
Finally, supervisors should be reminded to not overemphasize workers’ participation in family-friendly programs in comparison to their work performance within the context of performance appraisals and promotion decisions. These employees are participating in these programs because they wanted to be proactive in efficiently meeting work demands; they are not necessarily uninterested in work or advancement opportunities.
Organizations. While workers in organizations that offer family-friendly policies and benefits may feel pressured or discouraged from participating in these programs, some organizations may not offer any programs at all. The reasons for this decision may vary, but it is often due to the perceived direct and indirect costs associated with these programs. In terms of direct costs, organizations may be concerned with paying for childcare subsidies or for parental leave. Furthermore, it may also be costly to secure extra space (e.g., childcare facilities or breastfeeding rooms) or to pay for telecommuting equipment. Indirect costs may include addressing productivity disruptions by having colleagues perform the work of absent employees.
Though these costs may seem challenging to address, family-friendly policies may reduce their overall cost in the long run to the extent that their implementation is associated with less turnover, more effective recruitment efforts and less absenteeism. Furthermore, participation in such programs may increase productivity, reduce stress and increase employee retention rates (Yasbek, 2004). Thus, organizations should offer and—especially—should encourage participation in family-friendly programs.
Workers are placing increasing value on the availability of family-friendly programs and benefits in organizations (McGuire, By, & Hutchings, 2007; Stauffer, 1997). Although workers and organizations alike can greatly benefit from these arrangements, the positive effects of these arrangements are only possible when organizations are able and willing to invest in them and when workers do not feel discouraged from participating in them. Thus, it is important for employees, supervisors and organizations to be cognizant of the ways in which flexibility stigma may undermine the success of these programs.
Organizations should offer family-friendly programs, encourage employees to participate in these programs and remain vigilant for factors that could discourage participation in these programs. Employees and supervisors can contribute to the success of the organization’s efforts by promoting a family-friendly culture and by raising awareness of the organization’s policies and programs.
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Bond, S., & Wise, S. (2003). Family leave policies and devolution to the line. Personnel Review, 32, 58-72.
Casper, W. J., Fox, K. E., Sitzmann, T. M., & Landy, A. L. (2004). Supervisor referrals to work-family programs. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 9, 136-151.
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