Customized Arrangements May Be Ideal for Diverse Workforce, Researchers Say

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By Scott Lewis

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Even as companies create new policies intended to address issues of work-family balance for their employees, are those policies—especially policies that take a standardized, one-size-fits-all approach—inclusive in meeting the needs of all of the company’s employees?

Most likely not, says Associate Professor of Management Smriti Anand at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business, and those companies whose policies fall short may be missing an opportunity to attract and retain a diverse, engaged workforce.

In “No Family Left Behind: Flexibility I-deals for Employees with Stigmatized Family Identities,” published in Human Relations, Anand and co-author Arjun Mitra from California State University, Los Angeles, examine a group of employees that they argue is typically left out by company policies that align with a traditional view of family structure. Their paper introduces the concept of stigmatized family identity (SFI) to describe individuals who have both stigmatized social identities—that is, stigmatized based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or race—and non-traditional family structures, such as single parent status, same-sex marriage, foster parenting, and multiple generations living together.

“Standardized family friendly policies are no longer sufficient for the varied family structures emerging worldwide,” they write. “We contend that SFI employees have wide-ranging needs that lay beyond the realm of [human resources] policies designed with the traditional family in mind.”

Anand and Mitra make the case that the distinct work-family balance issues that SFI employees face could be resolved through idiosyncratic deals, or i-deals, in which employees negotiate with their employers to obtain work schedules, work location, and other customized arrangements to fit their individual situations.

“Our idea of SFI is new to academic literature on diversity,” says Anand. The paper takes a novel approach by integrating current research on stigma, families, work-family conflict, and i-deals. “We explain the challenges facing employees with SFIs, how organizations can address those challenges by giving flexibility through i-deals, and how organizations can create an environment that is conducive to SFI individuals negotiating for i-deals,” she adds. “An i-deal can reduce [an SFI employee’s] work-family conflict, which in turn goes toward improving their attitude toward the workplace and improving their performance and productivity.”

Anand says that she and Mitra are aiming to inform human resources practices, and that “No Family Left Behind” has come out at a time when workforce diversity and remote work policies are top of mind for companies.

“You can think of the pandemic as a natural experiment,” says Anand. “Because of the pandemic, employers were forced to allow employees to work from home. Many employers have realized that employees can be fully productive, if not more productive, working from home. Also, employees have become more assertive, and a lot of them now want more balance in their life and are going to demand these kinds of flexibility.

“I think employers should realize that a lot of times they are losing valuable talent due to their standardized work policies,” she says, and offering support to their workers through i-deals could be a way to change that.

Photo: Illinois Tech Associate Professor of Management Smriti Anand