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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 10 Numbers 3 and 4, 2000


 Erika L. Kirby
Creighton University

Abstract.Work-family benefits are of growing importance in terms of personnel policies. However, limited research addresses how communication impacts whether or not organizational members will utilize the work-family programs available to them. After describing work-family programs and the role of the supervisor in their implementation, I discuss how a communication-centered research perspective can further existing knowledge of work-family issues. I report results of an interpretive study conducted at "Regulatory Alliance" to examine communicative constructions about work-family programs, concentrating on the facet of supervisory support. The first theme explores the "mixed," or conflicting, messages that supervisors often sent about work and family through their ongoing implementation of work-family programs amidst organizational constraints such as frequent deadlines and a team-based culture. These constraints often called for supervisors to make "judgment calls" about work-family program implementation, which they made while at the same time trying not to set a precedent they might regret. As a result, supervisors at Regulatory Alliance communicated a philosophy of "always fair if not always consistent" that comprised the second theme. I conclude by discussing the implications of this study, including the potential impact of communicative interactions on policy utilization.
Sometimes I feel like it's more just talk. And I think they definitely say it. They definitely say, "Your home life is important and don't stress out about the job." But then they turn around and say, "Don't stress out, but you do have to have this done by Friday." Or they say, "Yes, your family's important. You need to spend time with them, but I do expect this other thing to be done and I know you don't have enough time to do it, so just deal with it." So I think it's mixed messages, that they say it, but sometimes it doesn't seem like they try to help you resolve how it's going to get done. (Female Examiner at Regulatory Alliance)
The previous statement is not an isolated one—attempts to "balance" work and family life are ongoing for many people in organizations[1]. When the domains of work and family compete for employees' time and energy, the result is internal conflict, often referred to as "work-family conflict" (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). Work-family conflict has potentially negative outcomes for both the individual and the organization (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). However, since employee assessments of work-family conflict are strongly correlated with work setting characteristics such as social support (Burke, 1989), organizations can adjust working conditions in order to help reduce work-family conflict. This is reflected by Galinsky and Stein (1990), who identify supervisory relationships and organizational culture as playing key roles in furthering or hindering the work-family conflicts faced by employees.

In adapting working conditions to respond to employee problems, many organizations have created work-family programs, including flextime, parental leave, and childcare subsidies, in order to help individuals combine their work and family lives (Gonyea & Googins, 1992; Osterman, 1995; Zedeck & Mosier, 1990). But in some organizations, there is a perception from both men and women that using these work-family policies is actually harmful to their careers; consequently, although work-family policies exist on paper, they often are not used (Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996). Unfortunately, when work-family benefits are not utilized, their potential to help individuals minimize work-family conflict goes unrealized. The work-family literature concentrates primarily on supervisory support and "organizational culture" as primary factors influencing program utilization (i.e., Thomas & Ganster, 1995).

Supervisory support and organizational culture both align with symbolic communication processes; however, little research considers how communication impacts whether or not individuals utilize work-family programs. In this study, I address work-family programs through a communicative perspective. Specifically, I describe the work-family programs that have been created to help reduce conflict, and the role of supervisory support in their implementation. I discuss how a communication-centered research perspective can further knowledge of work-family issues, especially in allowing the potential for paradox and ambiguity in supervisory messages. I then report and discuss results of a study that examines communicative constructions about work-family programs, concentrating on the facet of supervisory support and exploring the "mixed messages" supervisors may send concerning work-family programs and how they explain these messages.

Relevant Work and Family Literature

Research illustrates both institutional and interpersonal supports in the workplace and society can help alleviate work-family conflict (Bailyn, 1993; Gilbert, 1994; Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996; Rees Edwards, 1997). While interpersonal supports in the organization come from supervisors as well as coworkers, institutional supports include a mix of programs aimed at facilitating the integration of work and family roles (Cutcher-Gershenfeld, Kossek & Sandling, 1997).

Alleviating Work-Family Conflict through Institutional Support: Work-Family Programs

At least three major types of work-family programs exist, including flexible work options, family-leave policies, and dependent-care benefits (Morgan and Milliken, 1992). Flexible work options, also called alternate work arrangements, may include: (a) flextime, (b) permanent and temporary part-time work, (c) job sharing, (d) flexplace or telecommuting, and (e) flexible use of vacation time and personal days (Morgan & Milliken, 1992; Rodgers, 1992; Swiss, 1998). In studies by the Families and Work Institute, employees rank time flexibility first in their choice of what would improve their ability to balance job and family responsibilities on a day-to-day basis (Galinsky & Stein, 1990; Rodgers, 1992).

Typical forms of family leave include maternity leave, parental and paternity leaves, adoptive leave, and leave for elder care or other family emergencies (Morgan & Milliken, 1992). These forms of leave vary widely among organizations concerning their length and compensation, if paid leave is an option (Raabe & Gessner, 1988). Finally, dependent care benefits exist in the form of financial assistance, information and referral services, and childcare and eldercare services (Magid & Fleming, 1987; Morgan & Milliken, 1992; Zedeck & Mosier, 1990). Given the potential array of benefits, some companies have instituted a "cafeteria plan" where the employer provides some core benefits, such as basic medical coverage, and offers a range of optional benefits to be selected by the employee up to a specified limit (Magid & Fleming, 1987; Zedeck & Mosier, 1990). In addition, many companies are now emphasizing "personal" rather than specifically parental benefits (Kirkpatrick, 1997).

However, the existence of such supports on paper does not guarantee the programs are utilized (Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996). Gaps may "exist between family-friendly policies in glossy corporate brochures and the harsh reality of day-to-day supervisory and management practice" (Swiss, 1998, p. 89). Such "gaps" shift the focus toward how work-family programs are actually implemented by supervisors; it follows that interpersonal support is another important aspect of alleviating work-family conflict.

Alleviating Work-Family Conflict through Interpersonal Support

Research emphasizes the importance of supportive relationships in reducing work-family conflict—when individuals do not feel supported in their efforts to combine work and family, work-family conflict is increased (Frone, Russell, & Cooper, 1992; Greenhaus & Parasuraman, 1986; O'Neil & Greenberger, 1994; Ray, 1987; Ray & Miller, 1994; Warren & Johnson, 1995). Specifically, the supervisory relationship is a powerful predictor of work-family problems (Galinsky & Stein, 1990).

The Role of the Supervisor in Work-Family Issues. Research indicates that having a supportive supervisor moderates work-family conflict and stress levels for both men and women (Cramer & Pearce, 1990; Greenberger, Goldberg, Hamill, O'Neil, and Payne, 1989; Hughes & Galinsky, 1988; National Council of Jewish Women, 1988; Ray & Miller, 1994; Warren & Johnson, 1995). For employed parents, support from their supervisor results not only in lower levels of stress (Fernandez, 1986; Ray & Miller, 1994); but also decreased burnout (Ray & Miller, 1994); and reduced role conflict (Greenglass, Pantony, & Burke, 1989). On the other hand, research also demonstrates work-family policies are ineffective if supervisors do not support them (Galinsky & Stein, 1990; Rodgers & Rodgers, 1989). In a study of governmental employees, supervisor attitudes created the most significant difference between user and non-user groups concerning the utilization of flextime benefits (Bohen & Viveros-Long, 1981).

The research posits several influences on the amount of support provided by supervisors. Interpersonal interactions that are not supportive begin with the persistence of outdated management stereotypes and behaviors (Shellenbarger, 1992). Concepts such as flexibility also represent a loss of control for managers (Bailyn, Fletcher & Kolb, 1997; Miranda & Murphy, 1993). In addition, many supervisors have a limited view of what it takes to be an effective and successful employee (Bailyn, 1992; Bailyn, 1993; Bailyn et al., 1997; Perlow, 1995; Perlow, 1997). For example, one underlying assumption for managers is "presence," which links the hours spent at the workplace with assumed productive effort; the more time one is seen at the workplace, the more valuable is the perceived contribution and perceived commitment (NISW, 1994; Perlow, 1995; Rodgers, 1992). Ultimately, employees who take advantage of programs such as flexible schedules are penalized if the company rewards employees based on presence (Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996).

Consequently, as noted by Cramer and Pearce, "workplace policies are important, but over and above policy is the workplace supervisor's role in terms of understanding and supportiveness" (1990, p. 43, emphasis added). The mere existence of policies does not mean supervisors are happy about their implementation (Raabe & Gessner, 1988). Even in "family-friendly" organizations, managers may send "negative signals indicating that the use of flexible, family-friendly benefits is a problem for them and for the company as a whole" (Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996, p. 19). As a result, a growing body of literature illustrates that formal policies do not always equate with corresponding practices; employees may not be consistently informed of their benefits or be pressured not to use them (Galinsky, Hughes & Shinn, 1986; Kamerman & Kahn, 1987; Raabe & Gessner, 1988; Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996; Swiss, 1998).

Furthermore, supervisors and employees often negotiate individual arrangements for work-family programs such as parental leave and flexible scheduling (Miller, Jablin, Casey, Lamphear-Van Horn & Ethington, 1996; Rodgers, 1992). For example, employees at a customer administration center who wanted to take advantage of flexible time benefits had to submit a plan to management indicating their need and documenting how they would meet business goals, which discouraged participation (Bailyn et al., 1997). Such instances illustrate that the supervisor has to "buy in" to the basic ideas of leave and flexibility if such negotiations are to be productive (Miller et al., 1996).

On the other hand, supervisors may be more accommodating than their written policies indicate, because some work-family "policies" are informal or unwritten (Raabe & Gessner, 1988; Rodgers, 1992). An informal policy might allow new fathers to take a day or two off following the birth of their baby, even if the organization has no formal paternity leave (Pleck, 1993; Raabe & Gessner, 1988). As Lee (1991) suggests, this creates a situation where policies "live or die" by the ways they are applied to individual employees by individual managers. This is a key point, in that individual managers do not always treat all of their employees in the same manner; instead supervisors create different relationships with different employees.

The Supervisor-Employee Relationship and Work-Family Issues. As Jablin (1979) illustrates, situational variables moderate the type and quality of communication exchanged between superiors and subordinates. For example, leader-member exchange theory (LMX) as articulated by Graen (1976; Graen & Scandura, 1987) illustrates that since leaders have limited time and energy, they discriminate in their supervisory behavior, and as a result different subordinates get different resources. Supervisors develop close working relationships with some employees but not others, creating in-groups and out-groups, and this impacts interactions in terms of trust, the use of formal authority or mutual influence, social support, and formal as well as informal rewards (Fairhurst & Chandler, 1989).

Consequently, although behaviors such as coaching (where a leader shares a personal predicament and explains how he or she solved it) would be helpful for all performers, the advice is offered only to "in-group" members (Fairhurst, 1993). Likewise, Manzoni and Barsoux (1998) refer to the "set-up-to-fail syndrome" where managers create a cycle that positions perceived under-performers to fail, and then reinforce this dynamic through communication. In turn, subordinates may communicate differently with their bosses depending on whether they perceive an in-group or out-group relationship (Krone, 1992; Waldron, 1991). Thus, the LMX literature emphasizes the mutuality in behaviors and activities between superiors and subordinates (Fairhurst, 1993; Fairhurst & Chandler, 1989).

It follows that differences in supervisor-subordinate relationships can impact interactions concerning work-family programs. First, supervisors may construct different messages for each employee regarding work-family concerns. While an interaction surrounding taking parental leave may be supportive and open toward an in-group member, such openness and trust may be absent from discussing the appropriate amount of parental leave for a less-valued, out-group member. Beyond this, the supervisor-subordinate relationship is not a static entity; rather, it is constructed and reconstructed on an ongoing basis through interaction. A supervisor may change his or her mind about an issue to be more supportive, or decide the amount of time (flexible schedule, etc.) previously negotiated is just not feasible. Thus, the formal discussion about parental leave may be reinforced or amended through future interactions as well as observations of how coworkers asking for similar arrangements are treated (Miller et al., 1996). Given this potential for change and contradictions, "mixed" messages may emerge regarding work-family programs, which brings to the forefront the importance of communication in the process.

Viewing Institutional and Interpersonal Supports from a Communicative Perspective

When communication is mentioned in work-family research, it is often treated as a tool to be used by management to communicate policies and programs to employees. Managers are told it is not enough to have work-family policies and programs in place—the availability of those programs and policies must be communicated constantly to employees (Friedman & Johnson, 1991; Scott, 1995). An example of such "communication" is how the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche promotes the company's work-family programs by featuring in its monthly newsletter an employee's experience with the programs (Scott, 1995). However, this is only a surface treatment of the potential influence of communication on work and family issues. This limited attention reflects the fact that in the discipline of communication studies, work-family is a relatively new area of inquiry[2] (for published examples, see Miller et al., 1996; Ray & Miller, 1994; Stohl, 1995).

By employing a communicative perspective, scholars are able to emphasize processes inherent to interaction, and illustrate how and why work-family conflict occurs—rather than simply reporting outcomes (Arneson, 1993). For example, Rees Edwards (1997) argues "the ways in which they [supervisors] communicate support (or non-support) to employees may help us to understand why some organizations differ in terms of employees' use of benefits" (p. 20). This reinforces the need to examine how perceptions of work, family and work-family programs are enacted through communication.

As an example of such research, Weller Gregory (1999) interviewed three managers at the "family friendly" organization of Roundtree Brothers. Although all three were supposedly bound by the same work-family policies, they had very different ideas concerning the role of the organization in helping employees in combining their work and family lives-including whether flexible policies were appropriate in the first place. While one manager seemed supportive, the other two managers felt that home demands should not interfere with employee productivity. As an exemplar of this discourse, one explained that if Roundtree Brothers meant for employees to have children, they would "issue" them, just like the army (Weller Gregory, 1999). Thus, regardless of formal policy, employees were "at the mercy" of their supervisors' personal ideologies about work, family and whether a separation should exist between the two areas of experience (Weller Gregory, 1999). The contradictions between written work-family policies and comments such as "issuing children like the army" create conditions of mixed messages supervisors and employees must operate within.

Communicating (and Making Sense of) Mixed Messages about Work and Family.  On an ongoing basis, managers may receive mixed messages (e.g., being told to push harder to meet deadlines one week and to be flexible the next) that make it difficult to support work-family benefits (Rodgers, 1992). In the work of Hochschild (1997), a manager at Amerco alludes to this problem, in that

It was all well and good for the CEO to give a moving speech about a family-friendly Amerco . . . but what happened after that? How was the guy [sic] who manages, the man in the middle, to get the necessary work out of those below him in order to meet his departmental budget? (p. 141) Managers must operate within the constraints of the organization, and although they may want to be "family-friendly" as advocated by the CEO, they also have work to complete. Therefore, supervisors must "make sense" of the contradictions they experience in order to construct meaning (Weick, 1979, 1995). These contradictions may embody paradox and/or ambiguity, which Trethewey (1999) argues "are the stuff of organizing, and that the analyses of these [can] lead to richer, more complex understandings of organizational processes" (p. 142). In situations of paradox, "mutually exclusive alternatives that evolve over time" are present (Putnam, 1986, p. 153).

Weller Gregory (1999) uses the form of "either/or" dilemmas to illustrate the paradox embedded in attempting to satisfy employees' work-family needs while completing the necessary work. For example, "a manager might say, 'either I am a powerful boss or I am a friend to my employees'" (Weller Gregory, 1999, p. 2). The two alternatives are in opposition; the supervisor "is" one or the other. Furthermore, mixed messages may surround issues of combining work and personal lives because the use of work-family programs goes against traditional capitalistic ideologies concerning how work "should" be prioritized over family as well as how work "should" be done (Weller Gregory, 1999). For example, when supposedly "family-friendly" organizations reward employees based on presence, then individuals who utilize work-family programs are disadvantaged. The incongruence between recognized performance standards and supposed family-friendly benefits puts employees in another "either/or" dilemma (Weller Gregory, 1999).

But while paradoxes "represent mutually exclusive processes or neither/nor situations, ambiguity represents both/and processes" (Trethewey, 1999, p. 144). As illustrated by Eisenberg (1984), people in organizations confront multiple situational requirements, and ambiguity allows for more than one interpretation or meaning to be at work simultaneously. Ambiguity is often employed strategically and purposefully by members in achieving their goals (Eisenberg, 1984). In particular, managers must often "juggle" multiple goals, and as a result

sophisticated managers seldom "lay down the law" in areas of great importance to the organization. Many supervisors who have been overly clear in setting policy have found that the slightest violation of a rule by a valued employee places the supervisor in the untenable position of having to make a good decision while remaining consistent. Ambiguity can be used to allow specific interpretations of policies which might do more harm than good to be denied, should they arise. (Eisenberg, 1984, p. 235) Work-family programs are therefore susceptible to contradictory implementation, in that while work-life benefits are seemingly available on paper, they may not be available in practice. Managers may buy into this "either/or" paradox, and decide they can either honor work-family programs or get the work done. At the same time, ambiguities are also evident in the actions of managers who are more flexible than formal policy allows, as well as those who illustrate differential treatment of employees. This leads to the first research question:

RQ1: How do supervisors and employees talk about contradictions surrounding work-family programs?

Furthermore, research illustrates that since managers are usually the "interpreters and implementers" of policy, supervisory attitudes often predict the utilization of work-family benefits (Kamerman & Kahn, 1987; Raabe & Gessner, 1988; Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996; Swiss, 1998). Thus, research suggests taking family leave and using other work-family benefits is not always a "given" based on written policy alone (Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996). This creates situations where supervisors and employees must negotiate specific arrangements for using work-family programs. Such communicative exchanges are presumably memorable for the ADC and examiner, as well as for coworkers who may be told about the outcomes of the interaction and/or witness its results (Miller et al., 1996). In other words, these discussions may create memorable messages as to the proper role of work and family.

Stohl (1986) illustrates that memorable messages have a lasting influence on an individual's organizational life; they provide information regarding the norms, values, expectations, rules, requirements, and rationality of the organizational culture in order to understand situations and provide sense-making structures. Memorable messages have some defining characteristics, including that they are brief and oral, usually given in interpersonal interactions, and often rule-structured (Stohl, 1986). Overall, memorable messages encapsulate how an individual "should" behave in the organization. Barge, Schlueter and Hachtel (1994) examined the content of memorable messages, and found several recurring message areas that overlap with issues of work, family and utilizing work-family policies, including organizational advancement, risk-taking and showing initiative, professional behavior, and company values. For example, in the realm of organizational advancement, tenure track faculty may be told to "not have children until you are tenured." In the study, more than half of memorable messages came from a manager (Barge et al., 1994); thus, it is important to see how supervisors and employees are communicating about issues of work and family. This leads to the second research question:

RQ2: How do supervisors and employees talk about the nature of work-family programs?

Building on this notion, in their research, Poole, DeSanctis and colleagues examine the concrete ways that "talk about" Group Decision Support Systems (GDSS) impacted the actual use of the technology (i.e., DeSanctis & Poole, 1994; Poole & DeSanctis, 1992). This study takes a similar view of the potential influence of organizational discourse, in that the ways work-family programs are talked about can impact their utilization. If an individual negotiates a part-time working arrangement with her supervisors, but then is regarded and talked about as a "slacker" by coworkers, this sends a memorable message about policy use. In turn, individuals who desire to go part-time in the future will always have the "slacker" construct to overcome. This leads to the final research question:

RQ3: How do supervisors and employees talk about the use of work-family programs?

Since the primary focus is on how organizational members create reality about combining work and family through talk, their discourse is used to guide data collection, analysis, and report writing. Lindlof summarizes this orientation as "if we want to know how something is done and what it means, we have to know how it is talked about" (1995, p. 234).


The way organizational members talk about work-family programs helps to construct reality as to the "meaning" of such programs in the organization, which in turn shapes the attitudes and behaviors of organizational members. To explore these processes, I used an interpretive approach to gather data about organizational members' experiences and insights concerning work, family and work-family programs.

Research Respondents and Context

The organizational context for this project is "Regulatory Alliance," a governmental body that supervises and examines national banks to confirm they are following legal requirements. Specifically, this project concentrates on a group of Regulators in the "Metro" field office in the Midwestern District, which encompasses individuals from three cities (duty stations) in a two-state area. In the study, I was interested in studying groups of coworkers and their respective supervisors to understand both sides of work-family interactions. I purposefully selected participants to fit this criterion; in the Metro field office, a potential subject pool of 38 individuals existed, and of these individuals, 25 were men (19 were married) and 13 were women (all were married). Of these 38 potential participants, I interviewed 35 Regulators either in a focus group, an individual interview, or both. Included within these 35 participants were two Assistant Deputy Comptrollers (ADCs), who are essentially the managers of the Metro field office of Regulatory Alliance.

Furthermore, I also wanted a more general perspective as to how work-family policies are viewed by those who work with the policies on an ongoing basis. To this end, I interviewed the ADCs from all the field offices in the district, including Metro; there were 11 male participants (all were married) and four female participants (three were married). I also interviewed members of the Employee Relations Committee (ERC), which includes employees from all the field offices within the District and handles work-life and other employee concerns; participants included three male ERC members (all were married) and four female ERC members (three were married). In total, 56 individuals from the Midwestern District of the Regulatory Alliance participated in the study. Of these individuals, 15 were at the management level of ADCs, 36 were bank examiners, and five were in administrative staff positions.

The nature of the job requires the bank examiners (Regulators) to travel in order to complete bank examinations; examiners often leave on Monday morning and do not return to their families until Thursday or Friday night. At the Metro field office, examiners traveled about 30% of the time. For most exams, a crew of four to five Regulators traveled to bank locations, where they were supervised by the Examiner-In-Charge (EIC), which was a temporary and rotating assignment among examiners. Recently, there has been added strain on all Regulators because the agency is tremendously understaffed.

As a branch of the government, the Regulatory Alliance did have several work-family policies in place. A brochure suggests "managers should exercise flexibility in granting leave requests to all employees, so that they may adequately deal with their family and personal needs." The potential types of leave include: (a) annual, (b) sick, (c) advance annual and sick, (d) leave without pay (LWOP), and (e) family and medical leave taken under the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993. The organization uses compressed work scheduling, particularly in the form of "flex-Fridays," where individuals work nine out of every ten days and get every-other Friday off. Another compressed work program is called "4:10," under which individuals work ten hours a day for four days when they are in overnight travel status. The Regulators also have the options of part-time work, job-sharing, and work-at-home. The dependent care benefits of the Regulators include referral services for locating childcare and eldercare, and financial assistance through pretax payroll deductions. Given this organizational context, I now detail the procedures used for data collection and analysis.

Data Collection

I gathered information from the Regulators in three ways, including reviewing documented material, facilitating focus group interviews, and conducting extended individual interviews. For this study, formal documents on work-family/work-life programs were examined for publicly stated work-family efforts to both examine the organizational rhetoric as well as to provide ideas about important questions to pursue through interviews (Patton, 1990). This was important in that documents leave a paper trail indicating "what an organization produces and how it certifies certain kinds of activities . . . codifies procedures or policies . . . and tracks its own activities" (Lindlof, 1995, p. 208).

I then employed the focus group method to "explain how people regard an experience, idea or event" (Kreuger, 1994, p. 8). Using an open-ended interview protocol to guide discussion, I conducted and tape-recorded four focus group interviews with peer-groups of Regulators from the Metro field office about their experiences with work-family communication. To begin, I interviewed two groups of employees from the primary duty station in sex-segregated groups of men and women. I then traveled to conduct two more groups with examiners from the duty stations in other cities. The final two focus groups took place at the Midwestern District headquarters. One group was comprised of ADCs from all the district field offices, and the second was comprised of the Employee Relations Committee. In total, I conducted six focus groups that ranged in length from 70 to 90 minutes.

I completed individual interviews as a follow-up to the focus groups. Building on feedback received in focus groups, the original interview protocol was broadened to explore concerns about "mixed messages" and the predominant emphasis on gender. All individual interviews were conducted within the primary duty station to explore work-family communication between discrete groups of coworkers and their ADC. Using the protocol as a guide for discussion, the individual interviews were tape-recorded for later transcription. I continued interviewing until participant responses became repetitive to information in prior interviews; in total, 16 individuals were interviewed anywhere from 30 to 75 minutes.

Data Analysis

After processing organizational documents and conducting and transcribing focus group and individual interviews, the data was analyzed. The transcriptions were first entered into QSR NUD*IST (Qualitative Solutions and Research Non-numerical Unstructured Data * Indexing Searching and Theorizing). To clarify themes that emerged in talk about work-family issues and programs, the transcripts were analyzed for recurring patterns in the discourse using constant comparative analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The first iteration involved reading through the printed transcriptions and composing potential categories that seemed consistent across both focus group and interview responses. The transcriptions were then coded on paper using this loose categorical scheme. Next, rather than manually cutting and pasting the data to fit these codes, NUD*IST was used to efficiently organize, search and sort the coded data. Once the coding was completed, print reports were generated of each coded category.

In the second stage, I went through another iteration of the process and returned to manual coding, reducing the data into significant statements that represented the categories. I reduced the data again, to move toward key themes that characterized the discourse (Creswell, 1994). Similar to Witmer (1997), the data were coded "as they made contextual and conceptual sense. Thus, although the NUD*IST software offered a statistical interface, statistical analysis was neither necessary nor appropriate for analyzing these data" (p. 335). Instead, the themes were generated through researcher analysis. The results of this process attempted to capture the sense of organizational members' meanings regarding work-family efforts in their organization. In answering the research questions, the present analysis centers on the role of supervisors in influencing meanings about work, family, and work-family programs.

Results and Interpretations

When individuals spoke about supervisory communication regarding work-family issues and programs, two primary themes emerged from the discourse. To contextualize the themes, I first outline discourse where both the supervisors themselves and the examiners and staff at Regulators talked about how difficult it can be to balance the needs of the organization with the needs of individuals and their families. Upon occasion, this difficulty has resulted in the communication of "mixed," or conflicting, messages about work and family, and these are explored as the first theme. Furthermore, ADCs expressed how they have to make "judgment calls" about work-family program implementation, while at the same time trying not to set a precedent they might regret. As a result, ADCs communicated a philosophy of "always fair if not always consistent" that comprised the second theme.

Context: "They Have a Tightrope They Walk"—Communicating about Constraints

Almost all Regulators positioned themselves as understanding the tensions the agency faced in accommodating employee needs while addressing the deadlines and the team-based structure required to complete bank examinations. As a female support staff member commented, the managers

have too much on their plate . . . [so] when an employee comes to them and says, hey can I do that, they call me and say this employee wants to do that, would you explain this to me. They have too much to keep up with. They are spread too thin right now . . . they just have a vague awareness and they will deal with the details when they have to. Beyond their own tight schedules, ADCs talked about working against the clock to complete bank examinations by the given deadlines; by their accounts, scheduling examiners and still accommodating work-family needs was a difficult process. As a male ADC illustrated, "We're usually scheduled so tight that if I have one person who can't be on that assignment or doesn't want to be on that assignment, I don't have many options." The examiners echoed these concerns; a male examiner "thinks they [ADCs] do know that it's hard to be away from your family, but then again they know it's also hard to get in trouble from above if they don't get their work done." A female support staff member characterized the ADCs as walking a tightrope; while they "try to be as accommodating as possible to the individuals' personal needs . . . there are times when they know full well the job has to come first."

In addition to constraints based on time, ADCs felt constrained by the team structure, because in this environment, the actions of one person impacted the rest of the crew—for example, if one person did not travel, others needed to pick up the slack. This interdependence among the crew created difficulties for ADCs in making decisions about leave and other work-family benefits. Beyond this, the ADC also had to provide some supervisory discretion to the EIC, since that individual was ultimately responsible for completing the exam "as opposed to nurturing and making sure that you are sensitive to work-life issues" (male ADC). Therefore, ADCs enforced an unwritten rule that employees must also address requests for leave with their EIC, and while the ADC "may say, 'Gee, this is the way we want to do it. We want to be real flexible and open and we want to do that,' you get the EIC in there and the EIC says, "Heck no" (male ADC). As a result, some Regulators felt the EICs were "the worst" about work-family issues, and so ADCs also had to encourage EICs to communicate support for work-family programs among their examiners.

In summary, ADCs encountered difficulties in honoring the desire of the individual to utilize work-family benefits in light of organizational time constraints and the needs of the rest of the team. As a male ERC member encapsulated, "some of these work life issues are just going to conflict, you are just going to butt heads. The job, the travel, the extended hours, the work load it all deals with family issues." Amidst such difficulties, supervisors did not always "send" consistent messages regarding the importance of family and the utilization of work-family policies.

Theme 1: "Should I Do as You Say or Do as You Do?"—Communicating Mixed Messages

The first theme regarding interactions between examiners and their supervisors addressed mixed messages. While ADCs communicated to their employees that work-family benefits were open to them, at times they did not really want people to regularly utilize their benefits so tasks were completed and deadlines were met. This created mixed messages for employees concerning whether or not they were really free to use leave and other available benefits. Thus, the discourse surrounding "mixed messages" encompassed such contradictory communication. These mixed messages came in direct verbal and written forms, as well as through more indirect forms of communication, such as organizational role models and "counteractive" policies.

Communicating Mixed Messages through Verbal and Written Forms. Common sense dictates that when individuals work long hours or travel out of town, they have less time for family. Consequently, although the agency supposedly wanted ADCs to assist employees in meeting work and family needs through formal work-family programs, the agency simultaneously wanted them to meet the deadlines for completing bank examinations. As a result, individuals felt pulled in several directions; at times it seemed the underlying messages were the ones they received more strongly. For example, a female examiner felt the ADCs "communicate that they are fully supportive of these programs, but sometimes there's a perception that there's a lack of sincerity behind that, [and] that if you really went to do it, it wouldn't necessarily be supported within the agency." A male ADC spoke of these underlying messages when he recounted a case where an article in the newsletter about "how you have to have time to play" was placed on the same page with a reminder about getting Year 2000 compliance examinations done by deadline. As he interpreted, "We send the subliminal messages louder than what is printed in Supervisions [newsletter] or in the policy." A male examiner agreed that

One day you'll hear from your local supervisor that, yeah, everything is fine. These work-life issues are great. Why don't you go ahead and do these things, and the next day you'll get on e-mail and you'll see that . . . we've got these deadlines, and it kind of throws the rest of it on the back burner and it says that this is more important now. It's more important to be in the production mode than it is to be in the employee relations mode. Many ADCs were therefore concerned about sending mixed messages regarding the importance of work versus family. As a male ADC noted, "one of the difficulties I have is . . . setting the example that family is more important perhaps than your job and conveying that to your people. We are so busy it is hard to do that." A female ADC summarized that No matter how many times you tell them that maybe family life is more important than your work life, they are getting so many mixed messages . . . We spend so much time tracking everything and time frames are so important that you hear it all the time . . . this thing has to get done . . . it is mixed messages. It is hard to convey how important it is, family life . . . when with everything else, you figure if you take three days off, you have to make that up somewhere. As illustrated, supervisory talk surrounding work-family programs and finding time for both family and work responsibilities embodied mixed messages. In addition, the fact that work-life programs were not often talked about at work acted as an indirect form of communication. A male ERC member explained that managers did not talk much about work-family programs because "they are more production-oriented and trying to get bank exams done . . . I just don't think it is that high up on their radar screen." A male examiner commented how the potential to take family or personal leave "really isn't communicated that well . . . the thing we hear is we've got these deadlines . . . it's sometimes very hard to take leave and not feel guilty because you're probably walking away from getting something done." But even when supervisors openly recognized their mixed messages, their responses were sometimes frustrating to examiners. A female examiner explained how a popular phrase from her direct supervisor is "Deal with it. Do the best you can." That's his phrase. "Do the best you can." And that's always hard to do. It's like, "Obviously I'm going to have to cut some corners. Where do I have the flexibility to do that?" And it's just, "Do the best you can" . . . In group meetings [they] say something like, "I know you guys are stressed out about this. I know you're worried that you're not home. I don't want you to". . . it's usually just a little pep talk . . . I don't think it's anything beneficial. In summary, the verbal and written communication surrounding balancing work deadlines and family responsibilities was one form of mixed message at Regulators. However, there were also more indirect forms that communicated the importance of work versus family.

Communicating Mixed Messages through Role Models and "Counteractive" Programs.
The indirect forms of communication that served to communicate mixed messages about work and family included role models as well as programs that "counteracted" work-family efforts. To begin, the type of person who was held up as an ideal employee within Regulators embodied a mixed message. A male ADC illustrated how the role models of people who have succeeded in the organization are often people who did not spend much time with their families. As he commented,

The further you go up the organization, people just put in enormous amounts of time. I mean, you see the executive committee members . . . they work all weekend . . . send e-mails at 3:00 in the morning. All of this stuff that culturally you'd say, "Now wait a minute. In order to get ahead, that's what I have to do is stay up all night and e-mail stuff and all that." Really, that is the message that you get. That's the way to get ahead as opposed to balancing your life. (male ADC) A female examiner echoed how this sentiment was embedded in organizational folklore. As she recounted, "They've always told me the higher up you get, the more years you have on and the more leave they give you, but you're less likely to be able to take the time to take that leave." Thus, other examiners also contributed to mixed messages where people did not feel they could really use leave and other work-family benefits available to them. A male ADC summarized this notion by illustrating how they are at times "their own worst enemy." A male examiner furthered that being short-staffed "makes it more difficult to take leave. So I don't think a lot of people actually approach the ADC . . . they just try and work around it some other way, which builds tension in their work-family life." As a result, people feel "pressured to do things at work when they would really, personally, rather be doing other things for their family. And maybe their perceptions, rules, expectations limit their ability to use some of those flexible options that are out there" (female examiner).

Furthermore, some programs in and of themselves communicated mixed messages about work and family; in a sense, they "counteracted" other policies. For example, the Regulators recently instituted a policy of leave "buy-back," where individuals could actually get money for annual leave rather than taking or accruing vacation time. Ultimately, this discouraged some employees from taking leave because they could get paid double by working normal hours while being compensated for hours they could have been gone. A female examiner illustrated that when the organization buys back leave, "you can't take it to have the balance." In discussing the buy back program, another female examiner expanded that "I don't think that's always good on your home life either . . . it's going to burn people out if they continue to do that . . . you need to get away and do something else to maintain your freshness." However, the examiners who had utilized the program appreciated the opportunity. As a female examiner explained, "I sold leave back and that was the only way I got my work done." Another male examiner "doubt[ed] I'll get all my work done even without taking a leave . . . the program's there, the leave is there but you can't use it." This examiner's perception that he could not use his own annual leave exemplifies how individuals did not feel the formal work-family policies really applied because of the mixed messages they received.

In summary, ADCs and examiners both recognized that mixed messages were being sent about work, family and work-family programs. Some of these messages were direct, such as encouraging employees to take leave but then emphasizing imminent deadlines. Other messages were more indirect, such as rewarding individuals who prioritized work over family as role models, which subtly encouraged all workers to follow similar patterns of behavior. Finally, some programs themselves contradicted the professed notion of taking time for family. To operate within these difficulties, the Metro field office ADCs articulated and communicated a philosophy of "always fair if not always consistent."

Theme 2: "Always Fair if Not Always Consistent"—Communicating About Program Implementation

As illustrated, the ADCs were operating under time constraints and within a team structure in order to accomplish their job of completing bank examinations. In attempting to complete these tasks while being sensitive to the family needs of employees, the supervisors revealed difficulties in maintaining equity among individuals with varying work-family needs. As a result, when addressing these issues they expressed "trying not to set a precedent" they would regret, and they accomplished this by employing a philosophy of "always fair if not always consistent." Concomitantly, the ADCs emphasized they did not want to emphasize work-family programs at the expense of the task.

Trying Not to Set a Precedent: Attempts to Maintain Equity. The ADCs expressed concern in maintaining equity among employees in the process of honoring work-family requests. As one male ADC questioned, "How do you treat each individual without setting a precedent . . . it really creates an issue of fairness and also, for the manager, a question of, am I doing something here that I am going to regret a month or two from now?" Some of these varying circumstances included scheduling travel around employees' differing marital and childrearing responsibilities. As a male ADC commented, "From a manager's standpoint, that creates a dilemma. Married with young child. Single guy. Somebody has to travel. Who is it?"

Some ADCs actually found it harder to deal with the issues of single employees, because such examiners were a minority in the Midwestern District. A male ADC noted that "we are used to dealing with issues surrounding families and children, and to deal with the single issues forces us to think differently." ADCs must also schedule mothers and fathers prior to and after the birth of children; "when they come back, most mothers wish that they could stay in town for a week or two, but so do most fathers. In order to be fair, you have to have a standard policy, but . . . ." (female ADC). In light of these differences in circumstances, some managers preferred not to communicate with their employees about the reasons they needed to take leave or utilize other work-family benefits. A male ADC commented that he did not "want to say, well you wanted to be home on one of the kid's birthdays [which] is a valid reason for taking leave." Another echoed that when people submit for part time, "I don't want to know why they are asking for it, because I don't want to be in the position to say, 'Well your reason is more valid than someone else's reason.' It is a business decision" (male ADC).

In contrast to this philosophy, other ADCs argued that differences did exist in the validity of requests to utilize work-family initiatives. Consequently, some ADCs wanted employees to tell them why they were requesting leave in order to assess "reasonableness." For example, as a male ADC commented, "It can't be something like, 'Well we have a softball game' . . . That's not what I'm talking about. We're talking about something with sickness or the other spouse is gone or something to do with kids." Thus, managers did seem to use some discretion in implementing work-family programs, and tried to rationalize this in terms of concerns over equity.

Always Fair if Not Always Consistent: Explaining Differential Treatment.  Since supervisors did use discretion in how they treated each individual employee under these programs, the resulting arrangements were not always the same across coworkers. For one male ADC, this was the biggest challenge of the job—figuring out how to be fair across all employees even though some would get treatment that others did not.

The hardest thing for me has always been being fair because you won't necessarily be consistent. Because if you need something particular, I may not have done the same thing for the three of you. Over time you hope you establish a record that as long as you are fair, it is okay if I was inconsistent with you, but if somebody looks at just this window, they will say, "Why did [so-and-so] get to do such-and-such? I remember that somebody else didn't get to do that" . . . you have to establish a record over a long period of time and recognize that any window, you might be inconsistent, but if you are fair over a long time, it all comes out in the wash. (male ADC) Supervisory discretion even impacted differences in the interpretation of seemingly clear-cut policies. For example, a male ADC observed the 4:10 program was not as useful as hoped, so "there were those of us who just went, 'the heck with it . . . whatever seems to work, as long as it doesn't hurt anybody else, we'll go ahead and do it.'" For another ADC, although the 4:10 policy required that examiners follow the procedure both weeks in a pay period, he "could care less . . . If somebody wants to go on 4:10s, all I want is 80 hours, an honest 80 hours, and I'm not even going to measure and track it." In particular, new policies created difficulties in interpretation, because you're torn between giving managers flexibility in how they do things and being fair across the entire spectrum of employees. So, if you've got me who says, "Well, I'm not going to do that. That 4:10, it just won't work. Forget that." And you've got some guy in Columbus, Ohio that says, "Aw, the heck with it. Whatever works." Well, those can be inconsistencies if you give a lot of flexibility to the managers. But I don't know how to solve that problem . . . (male ADC) This created a catch 22 between the need for flexibility, and the resulting problems of differences in implementation across managers. One male ADC commented that being a "rule-enforcing agency" ultimately did place a limit on the amount of discretion any individual manager would exercise. In light of this emphasis on rules at Regulatory Alliance, some policies were not utilized because they were not perceived as useable, and no one wanted to "break the rules." As another male ADC explained, The rules are stringent enough that you have one of two choices. Either you follow the rules, and that's such a labor that nobody uses them, or you violate the rules and you just kind of wing it and do whatever feels good. Now, there are a fair number of people by the nature of being a bank examiner, are not very good at just violating the rules . . . So if you don't know the rule, then you just don't use it. If you do know the rule and it's a burden to follow it, then you don't use it either. When ADCs did decide to "bend" the rules to accommodate an individual, such discretion often created more confusion. A male ADC noted that "If I don't follow the rules, then they [the examiners] don't know if I disagree with the policy or if I don't want to mess with following it." Even so, it seemed to be a common occurrence for ADCs to "put their own little spin" on how they utilized policies. While a few ADCs were strictly "by the book," others "try to do what's right in the particular circumstance. Now, the problem is . . . on Tuesday you will do something different than you did on Wednesday" (male ADC).

But examiners did not seem especially surprised by such supervisory discretion in implementing work-family programs; as one noted, "no matter where you work, you are going to have managers who are more or less receptive to various initiatives" (male ERC). A female support staff member pointed out that "it falls back on the individual manager . . . And they're humans like you and I. There's biases and non-biases. There's old school and new school. There's different attitudes." Thus, whether or not an ADC is "receptive to part-time workers or to things like that, that are not traditional . . . makes all the difference . . . it doesn't matter really what's in writing" (female examiner). Another female examiner agreed that "there may be a policy out there, but a supervisor [may] not fully believe in them or he feels like, 'God, this is stupid. Just another thing to take away hours from our exam.'" A male examiner furthered certain ADCs "informally discouraged it just by lack of communicating it or offering it."

One male examiner actually had an experience where because of managerial discretion, he was denied the amount of paternity leave he requested under the Family Medical Leave Act, only to discover that ADCs in other field offices (including Metro) would have granted his request. Based on hearing similar experiences from other locations, the Metro field office examiners did feel that with their particular ADCs, they were exposed to the "positive" side of managerial discretion in policy implementation. A male examiner speculated at other locations, "the ADCs aren't as approachable, maybe aren't as flexible." This illustrates that examiners did seem to perceive their ADCs were making efforts to be fair and consistent. A male examiner "really think[s] that people make efforts to try to keep things even across the board with all issues," but at the same time he sees "there might be an effect of treating somebody different when that wasn't the intention." Consequently, although "managers almost never get people who come directly to them and say, 'that irritates me that you let so-and-so do this.' [If] you kind of listen to the street . . . you will . . . pick up the subtleties" (male ADC).

To summarize, two themes emerged concerning how Regulators spoke about supervisory communication regarding work-family issues and programs. Most examiners reported feelings of empathy for ADCs based on the constraints they faced in implementing these policies. Upon occasion, this difficulty resulted in the communication of "mixed," or conflicting, messages about work and family. In addition, discourse indicated that since ADCs have discretion in work-family program implementation, when responding to individual requests, they tried not to set a precedent they would regret by using a policy of "always fair if not always consistent." The discussion connects these findings to prior literature and offers directions for future research.


In the discussion, I revisit the initial research questions posed to guide data collection and analysis—essentially illustrating how examiners and ADCs communicated about work-family programs, the contradictions surrounding the programs, and program utilization. I illustrate relationships between the results and prior literature, and throughout the discussion, I am conceiving of discourse as structure and process (Putnam, Phillips, & Chapman, 1996). I examine ways that "talk about" work-family issues, policies, and programs served to frame individual perceptions and, ultimately, appropriated the use of policies and programs. Following this discussion, I suggest directions for future research on work-family communication, outline limitations and offer conclusions.

Rodgers (1992) illustrated managers receive mixed messages—such as being told to push harder to meet deadlines one week and to be flexible the next—which make it difficult to openly support work-family benefits. This did seem to be a difficulty for the ADCs; a primary contradiction faced by supervisors was how to honor work-family programs in the midst of time constraints, travel and being understaffed. Some ADCs did seem to experience these contradictions as an "either/or" paradox (Weller Gregory, 1999). For example, the supervisor who denied paternity leave probably saw that examiner as "either" a father or a committed worker, and in turn saw himself as "either" a friend or a good supervisor.

The Regulators brochure on work-family suggested "managers should exercise flexibility in granting leave requests to all employees, so that they may adequately deal with their family and personal needs." Both Metro ADCs seemed to use this as a rationale to adjust to individual circumstances based on the reason an examiner needed leave. In fact, a majority of the ADCs seemed to treat work-family programs as ambiguous, and interpreted them strategically. Under this system, ADCs "tailored" appropriate solutions to individual problems, even if they may have handled a similar situation differently in the past. Thus, some managers used ambiguity as a rationale to have employees lay out their reasons for wanting to use leave. In turn, they had the freedom to "honor" requests; this resulted in the protection of individual interests for the examiner who wanted to go to his child's birthday party, and the protection of organizational interests for the examiner who wanted to go to a softball game. Although the ADCs did not say this was necessarily the right thing to do, assessing the "appropriateness" of requests did function for some ADCs as a way to make sense of their potentially contradictory circumstances.

There were also more micro-level contradictions, such as the 4:10 policies, which were designed to provide the Regulators with flexibility but were actually unflexible in nature. Some ADCs experienced this contradiction as an "either/or" dilemma, where they could either follow the rules, or not use the policies at all. Other ADCs saw the policy as ambiguous, and applied it at their discretion in order to help their employees. In light of the sometimes inconsistent application of policies, the examiners commented on the mixed signals sent by the organization about work-family programs, in terms of whether the programs were really part of the culture (Warren & Johnson, 1995). Although I did not specifically examine the quality of the supervisory relationship, this could also influence how "willing" ADCs were to bend the rules and say "to heck with" formal policies. ADCs might make accommodations for some examiners that others would not receive. At times, this accommodation involved interpreting the policy more liberally than it was written, and a potential problem with this strategy is that it can heighten policy ambiguity (Perlow, 1997; Raabe & Gessner, 1988; Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996).

Such accommodations illustrate that mixed messages were not inherently debilitating. Some ADCs took advantage of ambiguity to extend the bounds of what was possible under the policy, and created opportunities for their examiners. However, overall it seemed that when ADCs communicated mixed messages, employees were not always sure whether they supported the work-family programs, and consequently, whether it was acceptable to utilize the policies (Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996). The way the ADCs characterized their own attempts at support of work-family benefits was to "always be fair if not always consistent." The ADCs saw two options when examiners came to them with requests for family leave and other work-family benefits: they could go "by the book," or they could adjust to individual circumstances. Individuals who operated by the book tended to follow the pattern of not wanting to know why employees wanted to take leave, so as not to fall subject to "saying your reason is more valid than someone else's."

Regulator discourse also suggested that when mixed messages existed about how employees should prioritize work and family, in many cases the messages regarding the importance of work and meeting deadlines were the ones they heeded, rather than ones emphasizing the importance of family. As one ADC mentioned, "we have an imbalance that is too heavy toward the work side." However, at least one examiner actually said, "the program's there, the leave is there but you can't use it." This echoed the research of work-family scholars and practitioners that finds when men and women perceive that using work-family policies may be harmful to their careers, it impacts their use of benefits (i.e. Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996). Regulator discourse illustrated that even employees who work for the government, in a relatively protected industry, were not immune to such perceptions.

Through direct forms of communication, including emphasizing deadlines without emphasizing the need to take leave to "maintain freshness," Regulatory Alliance was and is shaping member orientations toward prioritizing work and family. Indirect forms of communication such as organizational role models furthered these perceptions. In addition, work-family programs in the form of flex-Fridays and 4:10s were examples of policies designed to aid ADCs in helping employees in balancing their work and family lives. However, when these programs were counterbalanced with policies that "bought-back" leave, employees were unsure as to whether they really had the freedom to be flexible in their scheduling—even though the written company documents indicated they should.

These observations extend our understanding of how and why individuals experience work-family conflict and what influences whether individuals utilize work-family programs. Much of the literature implies that when supervisors are supportive or unsupportive of work-family policies, they are always operating intentionally—and some research even suggests they are operating maliciously. As previously quoted from Swiss, gaps may "exist between family-friendly policies in glossy corporate brochures and the harsh reality of day-to-day supervisory and management practice" (1998, p. 89, emphasis added). However, ADC discourse suggested a majority did "buy in" to basic ideas of leave and flexibility, which are essential for the success of work-family programs (Miller et al., 1996).

Of the two Metro ADCs, neither could recall more than a handful of incidents where they had turned down a request for leave, and most of the examiners echoed that their requests had been granted. The examiners expressed being comfortable approaching ADCs with requests to use the work-family benefits available to them. Thus, the examiners did not see their supervisors as unsupportive even though they still had concerns about taking leave and using other work-family benefits. Although examiners occasionally interpreted messages as saying work should come before family, the examiners did not perceive the ADCs intended to prevent them from using work-family policies. ADC discourse did not suggest they set out with malicious intent to sabotage the organization's work-family agenda.

This illustrates the centrality of communication processes in shaping the utilization of benefits, beyond the individual personalities or agendas of supervisors. Through this lens, subtler forms of communication and their mixed messages also impacted employee perceptions of whether they felt free to use work-family benefits. For example, seeing articles about "having time to play" and meeting deadlines on the same page in the newsletter communicates a conflicting message to examiners about work versus family life. If at the next field office meeting, an examiner is applauded for staying out on special assignment in Washington, D.C. for two months, this also communicates a mixed message about work and family. When Regulators are exposed to many of these contradictory messages over time, work begins to emerge as taking precedence over family—without supervisors ever directly addressing the topic. One of the ADCs recognized this in terms of them "being their own worst enemies."

As noted, in previous work-family literature communication is often treated as a tool to be used by management to communicate policies and programs to employees rather than as an important process in and of itself. In contrast, exploring the interaction patterns between ADCs and examiners reveals how and why work-family conflict occurs. Although it is interesting to note how much work-family conflict Regulators experience in terms of outcomes, this line of inquiry misses the subtle communication processes that help to shape this conflict. Examining communication as a central element in how individuals make decisions about work, family and work-family programs illustrates how mixed messages can eventually lead to the ironic appropriation of work-family policies—even though this may be indirect and unintentional. These findings concerning paradox, ambiguity and mixed messages seem to open up new areas of inquiry beyond the existing literature.

Future Directions for Research

In applying communicative inquiry to issues of work and family, there are several directions for future research. First, future research must continue to look at process as well as outcomes in work-family communication. Such research could employ a structurational framework to look at structures as being constructed and reconstructed through the day-to-day interactions of agents (Giddens, 1984). As noted, research indicates that even within the same organization, a single work-family policy is sometimes interpreted and applied differently based on individual supervisors (Perlow, 1997; Raabe & Gessner, 1988; Rapoport & Bailyn, 1996). This was evident at Regulators in terms of management philosophies concerning whether they wanted to know the reasons employees wanted to use a policy; they were creating their own "structures-in-use" (Poole & DeSanctis, 1992). Future research should include asking Regulators how individual ADCs communicate about specific policies over time. With these results, scholars could compare strategies that encourage policy use instead of subtly discouraging it.

A second direction for communication research on work and family lies in exploring the importance of presence or "face time" in organizations. At the most basic level, face time is a communicative construct-an individual needs to be seen (nonverbal communication) in order to be perceived as productive. For the Regulators, even though most of their work could be done off-site, and work-at-home programs were offered, almost no one took advantage of the program. Research could explore whether indirect forms of communication serve to encourage employees to "put in" face time and discourage them from working at home. In asking such questions from a communicative standpoint, scholars can understand how the importance of face time is constructed on a daily basis.

The mixed messages surrounding prioritizing "work" and "family" create another fruitful area of research. Specifically, the use of role models to indirectly communicate the importance of work and family seems to be a new contribution to the literature. This is not limited to work-family issues—future research could treat role modeling as a form of organizational rhetoric that functions as a symbolic message. Such work could model the research of Mumby (1987) and Riley (1983), examining artifacts of organizational culture for underlying ideologies. How do role models serve to communicate dominant ideologies in organizations?

Furthermore, in future research scholars need to question the underlying assumption of intentionality in policy appropriation. In prior literature, supervisors who do not seem supportive of work-family efforts are portrayed as having an agenda to sabotage the policies because they have not had similar issues themselves and do not understand the need for flexibility (Swiss, 1998). However, this study illustrates that sometimes, even when supervisors were trying to be supportive, they sent mixed messages because of other circumstances in the organization. When such mixed messages existed, individuals often listened to the messages related to organizational goals, which often precludes the use of work-family policies. Thus, supervisors did not intend to block the way of work-family programs, and yet policy use was impacted nonetheless. Future research needs to further explore the indirect ways that policy utilization may be discouraged. All these directions emphasize communication processes as shaping organizational outcomes, rather than treating communication as a tool.

Limitations of the Study

The implications of this research must be contextualized in light of its limitations. Most organizational members interviewed were white, married, middle-class and college-educated. Although this does reflect the demographic makeup of the Regulators in the Midwestern district, it may limit how readily this discourse translates to other contexts. Even during the interviews, a few participants said they "had it good" in the Midwest, and that other districts would probably have more diversity of opinions and less positive things to say about how work and family were treated in the organization. Beyond this, I believe that my language and communication shaped (and limited) to some extent how I was able to conceptualize this research. In this study, I continually found myself struggling to find better terms to represent work and family so they did not seem to be static realms that were "containers" that could or should be "balanced." To this point, I am still struggling with whether there are better ways to capture these processes; these are issues for work-family scholars to continue to engage.

In terms of method, one drawback of the research is that although it taps into how Regulators talk about work, family, and work-family programs, it does so through the method of interviewing. In terms of the efficiency of data gathering, this was the preferable method because work and family issues are not a predominant focus of Regulator discussions. However, it would be interesting to follow the conversations of participants in "real time" to see how these interactions operate and serve to structure how individuals perceive work and family in the organization. Another potential drawback to the design of this study was the size of the supervisor focus group. The organizational preference was for all the district ADCs to be involved in the focus group. This created a group of 15 individuals beyond myself, which by standards for focus group research is a bit large (Krueger, 1994). However, I believe these limitations are minimized in light of the contributions of this study.


In this study, I reviewed the literature on work-family programs and supervisory support, and offered a communicative perspective on this research. The results of the study suggest that examiners understood the difficulties supervisors faced, but were still frustrated (and subtly influenced) by the mixed messages they receive from their ADCs. For their part, the supervisors also seemed to be struggling, and they have created philosophies such as "always fair if not always consistent" to cope in a contradictory environment. Rees Edwards (1997) called for research to explore the ways in which supervisors communicate support (or non-support) to employees in order to understand why some organizations differ in terms of benefit utilization. The present study begins to address this question, but also extends it by looking at indirect ways that supervisors communicate about the importance of balancing work and family. As communication scholars, we have the ability to focus on such processes instead of outcomes, and as a result, to open up new areas of inquiry in work and family research.

*Author's Note:  I would like to acknowledge Dr. Kathy Krone, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for her assistance and encouragement on this line of research. I would also like to thank the reviewers for their thought-provoking comments on the manuscript. This manuscript is excerpted from my doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2000.


[1] In most work-family literature, the term "balance" is treated as a "given" desired end result. Thus, much research relies on the term work-family balance, balancing work and family, (etc.). However, this language choice also sets up value judgments that such an ideal is preferable and possible. In this research, I attempt to use terms such as combining work and family roles and meeting work and family needs. This, of course, has its own language implications, including emphasizing responsibilities over leisure. But in the context of this study, I am more comfortable with these assumptions.

[2] The works listed are published texts by communication scholars. However, since work-family is relatively a new area of inquiry, many conference papers have been presented at recent conventions as well (see Ashcraft & Pacanowsky, 1995; Farley-Lucas, 1998; Fuss-Reineck, 1998; Golden, 1998; Jorgenson, 1998; Jorgenson, Weller Gregory & Crandell Goodier, 1998; Kirby, 1999a, 1999b; Medved, 1998; Rees Edwards, 1997; Russo, 1998; Weller Gregory, 1999).


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