Let’s Get One Thing Straight: Not All Families Are

Work-family conflict is something all families face. Research into such conflict has been ongoing for about 30 years and findings are all relatively unanimous: work-family conflict negatively impacts work outcomes, such as productivity and satisfaction, as well as family outcomes (marital/family satisfaction) and physical and mental wellbeing. While the findings of this research are important for the sociological wellbeing of society, they’re incomplete.

The major hole in much of the research is that it’s based on an outdated concept of family: one cisgender (someone whose personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex) man and one cisgender woman. For 30 years, research has practically ignored the work-family conflict of gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and transgender families, which gives us an inaccurate understanding of work-family conflict for all workers.

Recently, researchers from Villanova University and Northeastern University sought to explore the whether the work-family conflict of lesbian, gay or bisexual employees across the U.S. mirrored that of heterosexual couples. The short answer is “yes,” but there’s more.

While most any employee finds that work time interferes with family time or that it’s hard to separate from work while at home, LGB employees experience conflict related to their family identify. The study authors point out specific examples, including struggling with whether to use family-related benefits for fear of revealing their same-sex relationship, stress about bringing their spouse to work events and uneasiness around telling their managers about family challenges that impact their work.

LGB employees in this study were more likely to report stigma-based work-family conflict if their “work environment signaled to employees that their ‘type’ of family was less accepted, compared with more traditional families,” write the authors. Of note, most of the people in this sample population were “out” at work but remained uneasy about bringing their families to work events, for instance, for fear of coworkers thinking they were making a political statement or being “too brazen” about their sexual orientation.

By suppressing their family life at work and, thus, not allowing their whole selves to be present, LBG employees experience greater levels of work-family conflict than heterosexual employees. Addressing this issue is key for retention, satisfaction and productivity, as well as employee wellbeing. While some resolutions to work-family conflict may reach the spectrum of families within an organization, there are also LGB-specific measures employers should take to ensure they’re promoting a truly inclusive work environment.

The study authors suggest that any cisgender language and images be stripped from workplace communications and replaced with inclusive content. This could mean, for example, that on the benefits handouts the families aren’t all smiling, white, male/female families. Another option is to replace he/she with the singular “they/their” to avoid misgendering families. Employers should also closely examine other language used within the company benefits programs to ensure there isn’t any confusing language or “blind spots” about eligibility.

Other suggestions include making sure that all workplace event invitations are worded to include significant others, educating the entire company about different family structures and, above all else, talking with employees who have different families to find out what would make them feel happier and included at work.

The authors acknowledge that having these conversations may not be easy, but they must happen to ensure a true inclusive workplace for all employees.

“If you aren’t aware of all these challenges, your work-family solutions will always be lacking,” they write. “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 what we’re here.’”

Danielle King
Danielle Westermann Kinghttp://
Danielle Westermann King is a former staff writer for HRE.