Family-responsive workplace practices are employer-sponsored programs and practices designed to help employees manage the demands of work and personal life. Such practices are intended to help organizations in their recruiting efforts, enhance their employees’ work-related attitudes and job performance, and encourage their employees to remain with the organization, all of which can ultimately improve an organization’s productivity. In other words, both employees and their employing organizations experience a “win-win” situation in offering and using these practices. Perhaps because of their greater resources, large employers are more likely than small ones to offer family-supportive practices, and because of their desire to improve their recruiting effectiveness, firms in industries with a high percentage of women in the labor pool also tend to offer family-supportive programs.
Family-responsive workplace practices include programs such as dependent care support (including child care and elder care), flexible work schedules (such as flextime and four-day workweeks), and other forms of flexible work arrangements, such as part-time schedules, job sharing, and telecommuting. Jeffrey H. Greenhaus and Sharon Foley have observed a number of trends in the way that researchers have classified the type of family-supportive practice, the ways in which family-responsive practices are measured, and the type of employee most likely to use such practices.
For example, the practices may be formal or informal, and they may attempt to fit an employee’s family responsibilities around a strong focus on work (segmentative) or focus on integrating an employee’s work and family life (integrative). In addition, whereas some studies examining the effectiveness of family-responsive practices focus on the presence or absence of a practice or the number of practices offered by an employer, other studies examine the actual use of a practice or the employee’s level of satisfaction with the practice. Moreover, it is not surprising that employees most likely to use family-responsive practices believe that the practice can meet their needs (e.g., women, employees who place importance on spending time with their families) and that their supervisors and their organizations are supportive of their family and personal lives. Although some employees may be hesitant to take advantage of family-responsive practices because they believe that their coworkers will resent them, employees generally seem to react favorably to family-responsive workplaces even if they do not personally benefit from the practices.
Do family-responsive practices accomplish their aims? Comprehensive reviews of the research, by Sharon Lobel in 1998 and by Jennifer Glass and Ashley Finley in 2002, have reported generally positive results. The availability and/or utilization of such practices has been associated with enhanced recruitment, positive work-related attitudes (such as job satisfaction and organizational commitment), low work-family conflict, and reduced withdrawal tendencies (that is, low levels of absenteeism, lateness, turnover intentions, and turnover behavior). Family-responsive practices have also been associated, although not as consistently, with improved individual and team performance. In addition, bundles (or groupings) of family-responsive workplace practices may be a source of sustained competitive advantage for organizations that offer them.
Despite the positive trends noted above, the effectiveness of family-responsive practices has not always been observed. Moreover, specific practices may be effective in some respects (e.g., reducing absenteeism) but not others (e.g., improving job performance). Further research is needed to determine the conditions under which particular family-responsive practices improve specific individual and organizational outcomes. Research along this line has shown, for example, that flexible work schedule policies and practices are more likely to enhance work attitudes (e.g., organizational commitment, job satisfaction, feelings of loyalty to the employer) for employees of childbearing ages and those with dependent children. However, additional research is required to understand when certain types of practices have their most potent effects on employee and organizational well-being.
A partial answer as to the effectiveness of family-responsive practices may rest with the family supportiveness of an organization’s culture. Family-supportive work environments not only provide family-friendly practices but also encourage supervisors to be supportive of their employees’ family and personal lives by being understanding and flexible when their subordinates face challenges in juggling their work and family lives. Moreover, supportive supervisors enable their employees to use the family-responsive practices provided by the organization. It is probably due to these reasons that individuals who report to supportive supervisors tend to be loyal and committed employees who experience relatively little work-family conflict and stress and intend to remain with the organization.
A concept similar to a family-supportive work culture is what Tammy D. Allen has called “family-supportive organization perceptions” (FSOPs). These refer to overall perceptions that employees hold about the extent to which their organizations support employees’ participation in their family lives. Employees who perceive their organizations as supportive tend to use the family-responsive practices their employers provide, experience relatively low levels of work-family conflict, and hold positive attitudes toward their jobs and their organizations. Therefore, although the provision of family-responsive practices is certainly important, they are most likely to be used, and therefore useful, when the overall culture of the organization is supportive of employees’ lives outside of work and when the supervisors who work in the organization are supportive of their subordinates’ family and personal lives. In fact, research indicates that a supportive culture promotes positive work attitudes above and beyond the effects of the family-responsive practices provided by an organization.
It is reasonable to ask whether men and women differ in the utilization of family-responsive workplace practices. There is evidence that women react more positively than men to such practices and are more likely than men to use them. Although it is possible that men, as a group, have less need than women for the assistance provided by these practices, men’s reluctance to take advantage of the practices may also be due to their fear of being stigmatized as uncommitted to their careers if they seek help from their organizations to meet family responsibilities. Men also have been found to make informal arrangements with their managers to juggle work and family responsibilities rather than rely on more formal organizationally sponsored practices.
Because much of the research on work-family issues in general and family-responsive workplace practices in particular has been conducted in the United States, the role of national culture in work and family life has emerged as an important topic in recent studies. A number of these studies have examined similarities and differences between countries in the extensiveness of government policies provided to help employees juggle work and family responsibilities. Although a high proportion of women in the workforce is associated with extensive family-supportive practices and legislation, national culture, in particular the availability of extended kinship systems, seems to determine who is thought to be responsible for helping employees balance work and family responsibilities. For example, in countries in which the extended family is expected to provide care for children and elders, dependent care is seen as a private responsibility, and there is little government support. Other countries rely more heavily on legal solutions to dependent care, as witnessed by the European Union’s Parental Leave Directive and the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act in the United States. Additional research is required for understanding how culture affects the extent to which families, governments, and employers assist employees in balancing work and family responsibilities.
In summary, the literature indicates that family-responsive workplace practices can help employees meet the challenges of managing their work and family responsibilities and can help employers become more productive as well. However, further research is necessary for understanding the mechanisms that explain why and when different family-responsive workplace practices promote individual and organizational well-being across a variety of national cultures. One useful concept studied by Susan Eaton is the “perceived usability” of family-responsive workplace practices, which refers to employees’ belief that they can use formal or informal practices without damaging their careers. The provision of family-responsive practices will be of little help if employees fear that using these practices will contribute to “career suicide.” It is likely that the culture of an organization and the supportiveness of its supervisors enable employees to take advantage of the practices that the organization offers—and become satisfied and committed employees in the process.
- Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- Flexible work arrangements
- Two-career relationship
- Work-family balance
- Work-family conflict
- Allen, T. D. 2001. “Family-Supportive Work Environments: The Role of Organizational Perceptions.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 58:414-435.
- Eaton, S. C. 2003. “If You Can Use Them: Flexibility Policies, Organizational Commitment, and Perceived Performance.” Industrial Relations 42:145-167.
- Glass, J. and Finley, A. 2002. “Coverage and Effectiveness of Family-responsive Workplace Policies.” Human Resource Management Review 12:313-337.
- Grandey, A. A. 2001. “Family Friendly Policies: Organizational Justice Perceptions of Need-based Allocations.” Pp. 145-173 in Justice in the Workplace: From Theory to Practice, 2, edited by R. Cropanzano. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Greenhaus, J. H. and Foley, S. Forthcoming. “The Intersection of Work and Family Lives.” In Handbook of Career Studies, edited by H. Gunz and M. Peiper. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Kossek, E. E. and Nichol, V. 1992. “The Effects of On-site Child Care on Employee Attitudes and Performance.” Personnel Psychology 45:485-509.
- Lobel, S. A. 1999. “Impacts of Diversity and Work-life Initiatives in Organizations.” Pp. 453-476 in Handbook of Gender and Work, edited by G. N. Powell. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Parker, L. B. and Allen, T. D. 2002. “Factors Related to Supervisor Work/family Sensitivity and Flexibility.” Paper presented at the 17th Annual Meeting of the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology, Toronto, Canada.
- Perry-Smith, J. E. and Blum, T. C. 2000. “Work-family Human Resource Bundles and Perceived Organizational Performance.” Academy of Management Journal 43: 1107-1117.