Elevate your HR career by joining the most supportive community of HR leaders. Explore membership
Explore membership

Creating a Safe & Inclusive Workplace for Employees in Stigmatized Family & Relationship Structures

8 Strategies for forward thinking people leaders

Calendar SVG
Jul 11, 2024
No items found.
Calendar SVG

Last updated on Jun 03, 2024

Our society – and the workplaces that support it – is rapidly evolving when it comes to diverse relationship and family structures, including supporting employees who engage in a form of consensual non-monogamy. This article will unpack the data behind these shifts and explain concrete steps your organization can take to create a safe and inclusive environment for employees from a broad range of family and relationship structures. Dr. Lily will also be hosting a TroopHR Huddle on this topic along with TroopHR member and Ream CEO Alex Savtchenko on 6/13 from 10:00 - 11:00 AM PT.

Source: YouGov 2023

You can safely assume that at least 5% of your workforce would be directly impacted by a decision to proactively support consensually non-monogamous employees. And this is even more true for Gen Z and Millennial employees, who are considerably more likely to identify with this structure. A February 2023 YouGov poll found that one-third of Americans (33%) describe their ideal relationship as something other than complete monogamy, with people under 45 being more likely (43%) to indicate interest in this than other generations. Notably, people are equally likely to practice consensual non-monogamy across religious, geographic, and political groups, meaning that employers nationwide have a strong call to action when it comes to being attentive to the needs of this population.

Despite the prevalence of consensual non-monogamy, there remains significant social stigma attached to disclosing these identities in the workplace. An estimated 67% of people who identify as consensual non-monogamous report experiencing discrimination, with the most common areas being employment, healthcare, housing, and child custody. People also face widespread family rejection and social ostracization. Finally, there are known cases where employers have fired employees who were polyamorous based on their disclosure

In response to this widespread stigma and discrimination, cities nationwide – including Cambridge, MA and Oakland, CA – have begun to put protections in place prohibiting discrimination on the basis of family and relationship structure. HR Executives will be aided by knowing that the law is trending in this direction, and this may bring up legal compliance that organizations can get ahead of by acting now. While these protections signal a vital step forward, however, they are not yet widespread. As a result, it may be important to acknowledge for your employees that opening up about their identity could have implications for other aspects of their lives, even if they’re safe at work. Adultery is still illegal in 20 states, and many courts do not recognize the distinction between consensual and non-consensual non-monogamy, jeopardizing child custody, divorce, and other critical legal proceedings. 

Formal legal protections for people in non-normative relationship structures in the workplace are currently scarce, creating an opportunity for organizations like yours to serve as leaders in this new frontier for civil rights. Organizations including JP Morgan Chase, Dell, Microsoft, and AirBnb have recently led the way, with efforts including adding 'family and relationship structure' to their employee handbooks and nondiscrimination statements as a protected class, creating employee resource sub-groups within the LGBTQ+ ERG, and offering education on this topic to employees and leaders. 

The courage of workplaces to lead the way has been pivotal for the advancement of LGBTQ+ other social movements. 

Especially in the absence of state or federal laws protecting marginalized groups, employers have a unique opportunity to promote safety and care for these groups and create a culture where it is safe to come out at work. For example, the percentage of Fortune 500 companies with policies protecting gender identity discrimination grew from 3% in 2002 to 83% in 2019, well in advance of updates to state and federal law. Comprehensive LGBTQI+ non-discrimination laws have not only served as a catalyst for economic growth by attracting diverse talent and businesses, but have also had demonstrable positive impacts on the physical and mental well-being of LGBTQI+ individuals, thereby fostering more resilient and inclusive communities. We anticipate the same will be true for consensually non-monogamous people and other people who structure their families and relationships in non-normative ways.. 

When you make space for people to be open about their family, relationship and care structures, you are opening the door for the large percentage of employees who are living outside the ‘nuclear family’ norm. According to 2020 Census data, only 17.8% of American households have a ‘nuclear family’ structure with two married parents living with children under 18. This means that over 82% of American households live in a different configuration: co-parenting with multiple adults, solo living, living with unmarried partners, living with extended family. By creating space for people to be honest and enthusiastic about their family and relationship structures, you can better understand the benefits, structures, and support that meet the needs of the wide array of families that exist in the United States.

What can employers do to help foster a safe and inclusive workplace for all family and relationship structures? 

Taken together, the measures can serve as concrete steps towards creating a safe and inclusive atmosphere for all employees, honoring the diversity of family and relationship structures prevalent in today's society. 

Update your policies

  • Update your employee handbook, code of conduct, and hiring materials to prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of “family or relationship structure.” Large organizations including JP Morgan Chase have led the way in doing this. Non-discrimination protections codified into the employer’s policies assure job applicants and employees that they will be treated equally and that their protected identities will not be a liability on the job. This clarity supports the recruitment and retention of talent as well as the workforce’s understanding of expectations, which in turn creates greater legal and social safety for members of the group that’s being protected to be open about who they are. Please see the Open Workplaces toolkit for model language. 
  • We recommend that you follow this up by hosting a panel where you bring external expert speakers in to help educate people about this aspect of family and relationship diversity.

Support the formation of an Employee Resource Group 

Host a panel where you bring external expert speakers in to both reduce stigma without putting people on the spot.

🎤 Looking for speakers? You can use this Speakers’ Bureau to identify someone who’d be a good fit for your organization’s needs. 

Educate employees – especially those working in Human Resources, Legal, and in management positions. 

  • Ask your existing DEI training vendor [if applicable] whether they’re including family and relationship structure in their training. If not, we can connect you with workforce training experts who can help create a short module or example to integrate into your existing DEI learning materials. We also encourage you to use these free resources: 

Encourage a more inclusive company culture with language use and event invitations

  •  Use inclusive language, such as “partner(s)” instead of “spouse.” “Spouse” is a term only used for married partners; because non-monogamous committed partners cannot legally marry, this term can feel exclusionary. 
  • Make clear that there are opportunities for non-monogamous employees to bring an additional chosen partner to important company events such as holiday parties. Or, if there is only space for each person to bring a +1, frame this as “bring a loved one of your choice” vs. “bring your partner or spouse.” This is also inclusive of single people who may want to bring a close friend or family member.

Expand benefits to include additional partners and family members

  • Currently, most employers cover medical, dental, and vision insurance for full-time employees and their legal dependents, along with options to add a spouse or domestic partner to one’s plan.
  • We suggest updating your Benefits policy to expand to an additional +1 or +2 partners or close family members. This could be subsidized by the organization, as is the case with children, spouses, and domestic partners, or it could simply be an option to add an additional subset of people at cost.
  • This would be a significant benefit for many in terms of accessing higher-quality care than they might via the open market exchange, and would not cost the company more; in fact, it may increase the pool of covered people, driving down overall risk and total costs for the organization.

Additional Strategies

If you’d like to schedule time to meet with me about advocating for family and relationship structure diversity, please reach out at lily@modernfamilyinstitute.org

Additional Resources

Open Workplaces Toolkit

Non-monogamy Fact Sheet

Safety and Coming Out

Latest stories

green circleCircle Contact

Join the mailing list

You’ll get a weekly email with the best HR content and info on Troop events

Learn more about Troop

Troop is the must-have training ground and support network for today’s HR leaders.