Three Rights to Make a Left – Detouring Around Stigma

Monday’s Wall Street Journal had an article about how some companies are trying to reduce the stigma around the use of flexible work schedules by their female employees through campaigns aggressively pitching flextime to men. It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but it seems to be working.

Some employers are trying to overcome a perceived stigma on flexible work schedules — often viewed as a concession to women — by redefining the issue as a quality-of-life concern for everyone. The approach is gaining traction, especially in the male-dominated financial-services sector, where employers have long struggled to retain and promote women.

Among the techniques companies are testing: highlighting successful men who have tapped flexible work arrangements; encouraging more employees to work from home part of the time; and promoting alternative career paths.

Ernst & Young displayed a 9-foot poster in Times Square as part of a campaign to spotlight successful men who value their personal lives. Lehman Brothers is presenting their initiative encouraging employees to occasionally work from home as contingency planning for a disaster. But ultimately the goal is to destigmatize flex schedules to retain women and recruit younger workers by making the issue gender neutral.

The article includes several tips from human resource experts for removing the stigma, which could also be applied to social marketing programs for issues like AIDS, disability and mental illness (bold is theirs, nonbolded is mine):

  • Use men in promotional materials for flexible-work options – Social marketers should consider using people who are NOT the primary target audience in their imagery to make it seem acceptable to everyone. For example, in a campaign aimed at encouraging people with disabilities to become a volunteer, use pictures of people with different ability levels volunteering so it is shown as something that every person could and should do.

  • Make a business case for telecommuting, such as planning for a disaster – Identify other acceptable reasons for participating in the program or taking an action besides the one associated with the stigma. So in promoting the new HPV vaccine, emphasize the fact that it will protect a teenager from cervical cancer rather than from an STD. Or a college-based mental health screening day (obviously not billed as such) might be trying most to reach students at risk of depression but also reach out to people who are stressed out, not sleeping well, or having problems concentrating on their studies.
  • Customize career paths for all workers, and encourage alternative paths – Show people in different audience segments, including the one you are most trying to reach, how they can benefit from the program or action. Let them figure out themselves what most applies to their situation. Rather than having nature trails specifically labelled as being for people with disabilities (and which trails are appropriate for which kind of disability), highlight the level of accessibility of each trail for everyone to apply to their own situation, including people with strollers or the elderly – e.g., whether it is paved, has uneven surfaces, guide ropes, stairs, ramps, etc.
  • Offer concierge services that simplify life, such as emergency day care – As always, make it easy for people to take the action you are promoting. If they have to go out of their way to do it, it probably won’t happen. An article (subscriber access only) on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal discusses a proposal to screen all pregnant women for the genital herpes virus. Instead of having a pregnant woman bring herself in to get checked, or letting the doctor decide whether someone is at risk or not, it would just be part of the routine prenatal testing she is doing anyways, and the fact that everyone has to have it reduces any stigma to getting tested for herpes.

Though it seems strange to think about directing your marketing efforts to other audiences besides the one you most want to reach, sometimes you have to take a detour in order to get to your destination.

Photo credit: Soferet

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