Organizational commitment among married dual-career employees: traveling commuter versus single residence
Dyanne J. Ferk
Once a rarity, commuter marriages among dual-career couples are increasingly common. Many choose to maintain separate residences instead of living in hotels. Employers sometimes worry that such arrangements will hurt their employee’s organizational commitment. They shouldn’t. A study of 82 commuters and 39 noncommuters in dual-career marriages found that traveling employees in commuter marriages have higher levels of “affective” organizational commitment–the desire to be identified with an organization–than those residing with their families. They also work longer hours. Evidence suggests commuter employees reward organizations that give them the understanding and flexibility needed to maintain family ties.
In 1999 Bill and Hillary Clinton became the most high profile commuter marriage couple in the country, and the concept of “commuter marriage” became a household term when First Lady Hillary moved to Chappaqua, New York, to pursue a U.S. Senate seat while husband finished his term as 42nd President of the United States. Their lifestyle, while a new concept for many Americans, merely put them among the ranks of over 2.5 million Americans who were living the commuter marriage lifestyle, according to 1998 census data (U.S. Census Bureau, 1998).
Historically, the commuter lifestyle has been employed in cases of immigration, migration, war, and economic instability (Gerstel, 1984; Rolfing, 1995). Particular careers and occupations such as sports, acting, politics, business, and the military have also had a large number of commuter marriage participants (Kiefer, 2000).
Employers agree that the ranks of workers participating in commuter marriages are growing (Coolidge, 1997). Several factors have contributed to this trend. First is the rising number of dual career households in the U.S. At the same time these married couples are trying to advance their separate careers, employers, responding to structural changes in the U.S. economy, are reassigning and laying off record numbers of employees at all levels (Greer and Youngblood, 1999). In some cases, one member of a dual career couple has to relocate to remain employed, for career advancement, or to continue working for the company to qualify for benefits, such as a pension or health insurance. Another factor is employer expectations that employees will relocate as a part of their career development. In all of these situations, the relocation of one member of the dual career couple can make it hard for the trailing spouse to maintain a career.
Systematic documentation of employer attitudes toward commuter employees is limited. One exception is a 1988 study by Taylor and Lounsbury that assessed managers’ attitudes toward applicants who revealed that they planned to become commuters rather than move their families if selected for a management position requiring relocation. Taylor et al. found that the selecting executives viewed those planning a commuter marriage more negatively than those planning a more traditional family relocation, irrespective of gender. Some executives justified their bias by beliefs that employees in commuter marriages would be less committed, less likely to remain employed, and less likely to give their best performance. This work investigates commitment toward the organization among traveling partners in commuter marriages.
Both members of a commuter marriage are pursing a career, which is why they have geographically separate residences. They reside apart on a regular basis for a minimum of two nights per week (Bunker and Vanderslice, 1992; Govaerts and Dixon, 1988). Four criteria distinguish commuter marriages from other marital situations (Gerstel and Gross, 1987). The first is that the marriage partners pursue two careers simultaneously. The second feature requires that the separation, while not necessarily the preferred alternative, has an element of choice, even if it was a choice among relatively undesirable alternatives. The third characteristic relates to the primary motivation for the separation, namely, an opportunity for continued or increased career involvement, advancement or professional satisfaction. Financial gain is not the primary motivation. In most instances, commuter marriage couples experience a net financial cost after adopting the commuter lifestyle (Justice, 1999; Ray, 1989).
The fourth distinguishing characteristic feature identified by Gerstel and Gross (1987) specifies that commuter couples establish and maintain two residences. Many employees in occupations such as marketing, auditing, and sales travel extensively. In these situations, individuals usually have temporary accommodations, such as a hotel, for periods away or between work situations. A spouse staying in hotels or other temporary quarters is not considered to be in a commuter marriage.
Previous research on the commuter lifestyle found that successful commuter marriages tended to involve couples 1) who had been married long enough to have an emotional investment in their relationship (Gerstel and Gross, 1984), 2) who had sufficient combined income to support the additional expense of maintaining two residences and traveling to reunite periodically (Coolidge, 1997), and 3) who had some control over their work schedule. Control over when to work seemed a more important factor than the number of hours worked (Winfield, 1985).
Previous research suggested that commuters found that their lifestyle offered certain personal benefits including increased feelings of autonomy, mastery of nongender-linked tasks, and a sense of self-effectiveness that emerges from separateness (Gerstel, 1977). In a 2000 study, commuters expressed a greater level of satisfaction with the time available to them than comparable single-residence couples (Jackson, Brown, and Patterson-Stewart, 2000). One of the coping mechanisms for commuters is compartmentalizing their lives into work and family. As a result, they reported a greater ability to pursue their careers without interference from family that the amount of work attempted and accomplished was much greater because of available blocks of uninterrupted time, more opportunities for intense concentration, and the ability to spend more time at work than their same-residence counterparts (Bunker, et al., 1992).
Organizational commitment is a psychological state that binds an individual to an organization (Meyer and Herscovitch, 2001). Links have been demonstrated between organizational commitment and desirable organizational outcomes, such as higher levels of job satisfaction, increased motivation to perform on behalf of the organization, and increased attendance (Bateman and Stasser, 1984; Mathieu and Zajac, 1990; Mowday, Porter, and Steers, 1992, Mowday, Steers, and Porter, 1979). High levels of organizational commitment have also been associated with reduced levels of absenteeism and turnover (Cohen, 1991; Cotton and Tuttle, 1986).
In summarizing the development of the construct, Meyer and Herscovitch (2001) present organizational commitment as a psychological mind-set with three components reflecting desire, need, and sense of obligation to maintain identification with and involvement in a particular organization. Affective commitment, the first component proposed by Meyer and Allen (1984; 1991; Allen and Meyer, 1990), addresses the wish or desire to be identified with and involved in an organization. Employees with a high level of affective commitment behave in ways that support their organization, including the expectation of remaining employed by the organization because they desire to do so.
The second component of the Meyer and Allen model of organizational commitment incorporates a view of commitment as reflecting the need to remain associated with an organization because of the perceived costs of severing such a relationship. Referred to as continuance commitment, this component includes views of organization commitment offered by Becket (1960) and Stebbins (1970).
Becket (1960) described commitment as the tendency to engage in “consistent lines of activity” (p.33) based on the perceived cost of doing otherwise, including the cost of leaving an organization. These “costs of leaving” can be economic, such as loss of salary, benefits, unvested employer contributions to a pension plan, seniority, etc., as well as social, such as the disruption of professional and personal relationships. Employees with high continuance commitment are expected to remain employed with an organization because of the costs associated with alternative actions.
In discussions of the continuance commitment construct, Meyer and Herscovitch (2001) indicate that this aspect of commitment, a matter of cost avoidance, may be negative and therefore its motivational value is less than that of affective and normative dimensions of commitment.
The third component of the Meyer and Allen model of organizational commitment, normative commitment, measures the responsibility one feels toward an organization including the obligation to remain employed. It includes feelings that a particular behavior is the “right” or “moral” thing to do. Employees with a high level of normative commitment believe they should remain with the organization and should expend effort on its behalf because of a sense of obligation.
This study compares levels of organizational commitment among commuters and non-commuter married career employees. The following hypotheses were considered:
Hypothesis 1. The traveling employees in commuter marriages will express higher levels of “overall” organizational commitment than employees in dual-career marriages who reside with their families.
Hypothesis 2. The traveling employees in commuter marriages will express higher levels of affective organizational commitment than employees in dual-career marriages who reside with their families.
Hypothesis 3. The traveling employees in commuter marriages will experience higher levels of continuance commitment than employees in dual-career marriages who reside with their families.
Hypothesis 4. The traveling employees in commuter marriages will express higher levels of normative commitment than employees in dualcareer marriages who reside with their families.
Commuter and same-residence subjects were located by the same methods, which included a paid ad requesting volunteers in the American Way in-flight magazine for American Airlines and requests for volunteers posted through the Internet, such as a call for volunteers posted on the Society for Human Resource Management list-serve and on academic list-serves. Subjects were also located through human resource departments that were willing to distribute a request for volunteers. Individuals and spouses were asked to complete a questionnaire consisting of background questions and the scales for affective, continuance, and normative commitment (Appendix 1) (Allen and Meyer, 1990; Meyer et al., 1984, 1987, 1991). Each of the three Meyer and Allen organizational commitment scales consists of eight statements for a total of 24 items. The total score for all 24 items was used to assess general organizational commitment. Meyer and Allen (1990) report the reliability (i.e., coefficient alpha) for each of the three scales as follows: Affective Commitment Scale, .87; Continuance Commitment Scale,. 75; Normative Commitment Scale, .79. Participants were asked to indicate how much they agreed with each statement related to the organization for which they work. Responses were recorded using Likert scales with a range from 1, “strongly disagree,” to 7, “strongly agree.” Commuter participants were asked to answer additional questions to determine their role in the commuter marriage–traveler or nontraveler.
The total sample consisted of 82 commuters and 39 noncommuters involved in dual career marriages for a total sample size of 121. Chi-square tests were used to identify any significant differences between the two groups.
Even though the total sample was almost evenly split between males and females (49% and 51%, respectively), traveling commuters were much more likely to be male (P = 0.007). Traveling commuters were more likely to work for a private firm than a public employer (P = 0.002), 73% compared with 39% only noncommuters employed in the private sector.
As one might predict, to support the expenses of a commuter lifestyle, traveling commuters reported significantly higher incomes than noncommuters (P = 0.009). In the traveling commuter group, 59% reported income of over $55,000 compared with 26% for noncommuters.
The next segment of analysis employed T-tests to assess differences between the two groups in the length of time worked with their current organization, the length of time in their current position, and the length of time in their current line of work. The sample size was more than adequate since the minimum number of same-residence and traveling commuter respondents required for using T-tests to analyze the data is 30 for each data set.
Noncommuters were found to have worked with their current employers significantly longer than their traveling commuter counterparts (P = 0.0096). The mean number of years with their current employer for noncommuters was 10.83 years compared with a mean number 6.49 years for commuters. There was no significant difference between the two groups in the amount of time in current position or current line of work. Possible explanations for this may be that commuters are more willing to change employers to move ahead, to accommodate the relocation of a spouse, or to continue employment at an appropriate level rather than be downgraded because of an organizational merger or downsizing action.
Traveling commuters reported working significantly more hours per week than their noncommuter counterparts (P = 0.0091)–an average of 50 hours versus 44 hours for noncommuters. These results are in line with past research findings that linked longer hours worked with greater compartmentalizing. When away from family, why not work more? The motivators to work include career advancement, earning the prerogative to take time later to spend with family, or just for something to do rather than go home to a lonely, possibly substandard second residence.
Organizational commitment responses for traveling commuter employees were compared with those for dual-career married employees residing in a single residence with family members. T-tests examined the differences. Regression analysis was used to examine the relationship between organizational commitment and the length of time employed in current line of work and the length of time employed with current organization.
Hypothesis 1. The traveling employees in commuter marriages will express higher levels of “overall” organizational commitment than employees in dual career marriages who reside with their families. Hypothesis testing results only approached significance (P = .0556) for this hypothesis. No significant difference was identified for overall organizational commitment among traveling commuters and non-commuters. Therefore, hypothesis one was not supported.
Hypothesis 2. The traveling employees in commuter marriages will express higher levels of affective organizational commitment than employees in dual-career marriages who reside with their families. This was supported, as traveling commuters did express significantly higher levels of affective commitment (P = 0.0407). Contrary to manager concerns in the Taylor et al. (1989) study, commuters showed not only the same level of affective commitment, but also a greater level of affective commitment than their same-residence counterparts regardless of time in their current position.
Hypotheses 3. The traveling employees in commuter marriages will experience higher levels of continuance commitment than employees in dual-career marriages who reside with their families. No significant difference was found in the mean scores for continuance commitment for traveling commuters and noncommuters (P = 0.87975). Therefore, hypothesis three was not supported.
Regression analysis revealed a significant interaction between time employed in current line of work and continuance commitment (P = 0.0278). Though both commuters and noncommuters shared a positive relationship between the two variables, for each year of time in the same line of work, the level of continuance commitment was higher among commuters than noncommuters. One explanation may be that commuters who have adopted their lifestyle to maintain or advance in their profession feel a greater level of continuance commitment because they have previously researched the limited alternatives. They know the price of leaving their current organization is high and feel a higher level of continuance commitment.
Hypothesis 4. The traveling employees in commuter marriages will express higher levels of normative commitment than employees in dual-career marriages who reside with their families. This was the case. Traveling commuters expressed feeling more of an obligation to continue their present employment (P = 0.01285). Therefore, hypothesis four was supported.
Regression analysis revealed a significant negative relationship within both groups between length of time in current organization and normative commitment (P = 0.0101). The longer the term of employment with their current organizations, the less of an obligation they felt to remain. However, for every time period, the level of normative commitment for commuters was higher than that of noncommuters. One explanation may be that commuters, who make commitments to continue employment despite their commuter lifestyle, feel a sense of obligation to honor these commitments. Another explanation may be that a sense of obligation is fostered by the perceived organizational support for the commuter lifestyle (e.g., travel reimbursement, use of company telephones, e-mail, altered work hours, etc.).
In summary, the data analysis shows higher levels of affective commitment and normative commitment among traveling commuters compared with same-residence married dual-career employees. No significant differences were found between the two groups in continuance commitment or overall commitment.
The results of this study demonstrate that traveling commuters have higher levels of affective commitment. Affective commitment is emotional attachment to the organization and creates the strong likelihood of subjects following through with positive organizational behaviors (e.g., continuing employment, good attendance) and potentially a wide range of positive “discretionary behaviors” on behalf of the organization, e.g., persistence, innovation, good citizenship, and motivation to perform (Meyer and Herscovitch, 2001). A positive affective mindset creates a situation where “… the individual is bound by desire or a belief in the meaningfulness and importance of the [organization] or activity …” (Meyer, et al., 2001, p. 318). This makes affective commitment possibly the most powerful of the three components of organizational commitment. In short, given their high levels of affective commitment, traveling commuters are bound by heart and mind to behave in ways that promote the best interests of their organizations.
The higher levels of normative commitment among traveling commuters imply that these employees are extremely loyal and take their obligations to their organizations seriously. The process of negotiating the implied “psychological contract” for their employment arrangement is more involved for the traveling commuter given the complexities of his or her unusual living arrangements. The results of this study suggest that traveling commuters reward organizations that look beyond their unconventional living arrangement with increased loyalty and additional attention to fulfilling work responsibilities (Meyer, et al., 2001).
As the number of commuter marriages grows, organizations need to be aware of the challenges that face these employees as well as the benefits they bring to the organization. These study results have implications for human resource personnel and executives who are considering hiring (or have hired) individuals who plan a commuter marriage. Organizations cannot afford to pass up the best-qualified candidate because of a commuter marriage lifestyle when evidence suggests that these employees are emotionally committed to their organizations with high levels of affective commitment. Traveling commuters also express high levels of responsibility and a sense of obligation to remain with their employers in the form of normative commitment. All evidence suggests that organizational commitment among commuters is expressed in positive outcomes such as low turnover, motivation to perform, and good attendance. One cannot assume that the commuter lifestyle eliminates a candidate from further consideration for employment as did the managers in the Taylor and Lounsberry (1988) study.
Nonetheless, even the most committed commuter employee can benefit from their organization’s awareness of their commuter status and resulting support. What type of management actions might be appropriate? This study has demonstrated that commuters generally work more hours than their noncommuter colleagues. These long hours should be remembered when the commuter requests additional time off because of a family situation. Furthermore, both a flexible work schedule and flexplace that allows the commuter to work from a location besides the office may increase opportunities for commuters to reunite with their families.
Managers should be sensitive about scheduling weekend or late Friday evening meetings or get-togethers. Of course, such meetings are probably an issue for many employees but present a particular problem for the traveling commuter who is trying to reunite with family. One alternative is to ensure that after-hours meetings are conducted during the week. Another is to ask the commuter about his or her availability for after-hours meetings. Seeking input allows the commuter to offer times that do not interfere with travel plans.
While these considerations have been suggested for commuters, the reality is that these types of accommodations represent best practices in many workplaces. Awareness of the unique challenges that face commuters will allow employers to accommodate, attract, and retain this particular category of employees.
While this study adds to the knowledge about commuters and how they view their work, there are more areas of possible research. While our finding of positive organizational commitment indicates that commuters are loyal, motivated employees who behave in ways that contribute to the success of their organizations, is this view also held by those who manage and work with them? What are managers’ experiences and perceptions concerning commuters? Do they perceive commuters as working more hours and rate commuters’ performance higher than their noncommuter counterparts?
This research focused on those who have deliberately adopted the commuter lifestyle and are currently living as commuters. It would be interesting to locate commuters who were not successful maintaining the lifestyle and explore why not. There may be lessons for organizations and employees contemplating the commuter lifestyle.
Furthermore, no study has systematically tracked commuters and former commuters longitudinally–five, 10, or 15 years–to determine the impact of the commuter lifestyle on careers and personal lives. Looking back, do former commuters view their decision as good or bad? Did it pay off in career opportunities? What was the impact on their marriage, relationships with family members, friendships, and health? Were the trade-offs worth it all?
Given the increase in commuter marriages and organizations struggling to deal with the trend, there are certainly ample opportunities for research to benefit each group.
Organizational Commitment Scales
4–Neither Agree or Disagree
Affective Commitment Scale
1. I would be very happy to spend the rest 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
of my career with this organization.
2. I enjoy discussing my organization with 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
people outside of it.
3. I really feel as if this organization’s 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
problems are my own.
4. I think I could easily become as 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
attached to another organization as I am
to this one (Reverse Scored).
5. I do not feel like a “part of the 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
family” at my organization (Reverse
6. I do not feel “emotionally attached” to 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
this organization (Reverse Scored).
7. This organization has a great deal of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
personal meaning for me.
8. I do not feel a strong sense of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
belonging to my organization (Reverse
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Continuance Commitment Scale
1. I am not afraid of what might happen if 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
I quit my job without having another one
line up (Reverse Scored).
2. It would be very hard for me to leave my 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
organization right now, even if I wanted
3. Too much in my life would be disrupted 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
if I decided I wanted to leave my
4. It wouldn’t be too costly for me to 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
leave my organization now (Reverse
5. Right now, staying with my organization 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
is a matter of necessity as much as
6. I feel I have too few options to 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
consider leaving this organization.
7. One of the few serious consequences of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
leaving this organization would be the
scarcity of available alternatives.
8. One of the major reasons I continue to 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
work for this organization is that
leaving would require considerable
personal sacrifice–another organization
may not match the overall benefits I
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Normative Commitment Scale
1. I think that people these days move from 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
company to company too often.
2. I do not believe that a person must 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
always be loyal to his or her
organization (Reverse Scored).
3. Jumping from organization to 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
organization does not seem at all
unethical to me (Reverse Scored).
4. One of the major reasons I continue to 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
work for this organization is that I
believe that loyalty is important and
therefore feel a sense of moral
obligation to remain.
5. If I got another offer for a better job 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
elsewhere I would not feel it was right
to leave my organization.
6. I was taught to believe in the value of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
remaining loyal to one organization
7. Things were better in the days when 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
people stayed with one organization for
most of their careers.
8. I do not think that wanting to be a 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
“company man” or “company woman” is
sensible anymore (Reverse Scored).
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Dr. Ferk’s research interests focus on many aspects of human resource management and management education, including workplace implications of commuter marriages, managing teams, and creating effective virtual teams.
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