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Top Business Gift for Employees: A Climate of Inclusivity


by Barbara Ruland, SIOP Communications Specialist

By Barbara Ruland, Communications Specialist

One of the best things organizations can do for their employees this holiday season is to create an environment where their minority status staff feel welcome and comfortable.

The holidays can be stressful, filled with extra activities and expectations at work and at home. That’s especially true if the two domains have conflicting demands. Sexual minority employees who are not out at work, and their same sex partners, are likely to be even more stressed by the demands of the holidays.

Rachel L. Williamson, lead author of a study presented at the 2017 SIOP Conference , titled “Bringing home what I’m hiding at work: The impact of sexual orientation disclosure at work for same-sex couples,” illustrated with this scenario:

“You have a significant other and you need a few extra days off because you are going to visit your significant other’s family. If you have not disclosed your sexual orientation, and specifically that you have a significant other, then you’re obviously not going to feel comfortable asking for that from your supervisor.”

A key finding of Williamson’s study, conducted with Angela Beiler-May, Lauren R. Locklear, and Malissa A. Clark, was that the effects of hiding one’s sexual orientation at work are significant for the employee’s partner as well as for the employee. Such stress can lead to lowered job and family satisfaction. The stress is then carried over into the partner’s workplace, potentially interfering with his or her job performance.

Giving the gift of an inclusive workplace can make the holidays more joyful for staff, and will also benefit the organization. Happy, engaged employees are key for a thriving organization, and creating a welcoming environment where diverse employees feel comfortable will increase an organization’s ability to recruit and retain the best talent, regardless of their sexual orientation.

I-O psychologists have been studying work-family conflict for several decades. This study, published in a special edition of the Journal of Vocational Behavior edited by Larry Martinez and Katina Sawyer, extends the body of knowledge on work family conflict in relation to sexual minority workers. Spillover and crossover are key concepts in work family conflict. Spillover describes the effect of strain in one domain of a person’s life carrying over into another domain. Crossover is used to describe the transference of strain from one relationship partner to another.

Past research has largely examined the bi-directional effects of spillover and crossover—work interfering with family (WIF) and family interfering with work (FIW)—in the context of heterosexual couples. Previous studies have shown that minimizing spillover strain from work to family is important for both immediate and long-term employee well-being. Spillover can affect the employee’s physical and psychological health, marital and family satisfaction, familial performance and long-term life satisfaction.

The researchers examined spillover and crossover effects of sexual orientation disclosure at work for employees who were in stable long-term relationships. They found when an employee does not disclose it may have significant negative effects on the relationship partner’s psychological well-being. Similarly, an employee’s disclosure to a supervisor had a positive effect on their partner’s family satisfaction and decreased the partners FIW. Disclosure to co-workers also increased partner family satisfaction.

The research also showed two gendered moderations in spillover effects. Surprisingly, when sexual minority men disclosed to their supervisors, it had a stronger positive impact on their FIW. For sexual minority men, lower levels of disclosure to co-workers had more negative effect on their job satisfaction.

This study provided practical insights for employers about creating parity of support in the workplace. Williamson pointed out that many organizations are working harder to recruit and retain the best talent regardless of minority status. However, she said, “A lot of organizations have not yet moved to focusing on why it is important or how to be proactive about diversity and inclusion as opposed to just including a sentence in a job ad that they are open and supportive of diverse employees.”

The study shows the negative effects created when a minority employee doesn’t feel they are supported.

“And then building off that,” Williamson said, “what I think is the most interesting thing that we found in this paper is that disclosure at work for the first participant affects their partner’s family interference with work." The spread of domain interference from one workplace to another through the effects on the relationship partners is a phenomenon with implications for businesses seeking to improve organizational effectiveness.  

Citing research conducted in 2008, Williamson and colleagues suggest a couple key steps organizations can take to create more inclusive workplaces.  They include creating benefit parity for same sex couples, adding sexual orientation to antidiscrimination policies and educating all staff about creating a welcoming environment.

Microaggressions are slights based on minority status that are frequently unintentional. Williamson says “they can be a big driver of why sexual orientation minority individuals may not feel comfortable disclosing, because they are perceiving or feeling that they’re experiencing these microaggressions. And then,” she continued, “that translates into them feeling like they need to hide this aspect of their lives.” So, training for all staff on this topic can be especially helpful in creating inclusivity. 

For employees, Williamson recommends that sexual minority workers in long term relationships disclose their orientation whenever they feel comfortable.  Failing to do so creates stress for them and their partner. For the partner, it can also lead to increased family interference at work, a diminished sense of relationship commitment, and decreased family satisfaction.  Disclosure, on the other hand, can strengthen social support networks, positively affecting family satisfaction for both partners.  

“Hopefully, their organization is a supportive environment where they feel comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation status if they want to.” Williamson said. But if they’re in an organization where they feel like they can’t disclose, she suggests employees consider, “Being proactive and figuring out ways they can start a change in their company, or finding other organizations that align with their needs.”

Williamson and her colleagues tested 9 hypotheses about how workplace disclosure of sexual minority status affects the employee and the employee’s partner, and made notable contributions to the body of knowledge about work family conflict.

This research developed a more nuanced measure of disclosure, by examining to whom the disclosure was made and how openly the employees’ sexual orientation is discussed. Williamson maintains that the binary yes/no question used in prior research is not a good measure of the complexity of the subject.

By highlighting the crossover effects on partners, the study provides insight into the spillover/crossover model. It contributes to the theoretical debate about which domains are primarily impacted by WIF and FIW, and it demonstrates similarities and differences in effects on well-being for heterosexual and same sex couples.  

Complete descriptions of the study methodology and selection process are available in the Journal of Vocational Behavior report.

For More Information:

Contact Rachel Williamson by email or on LinkedIn