In 'family friendly' workplaces, singles feel overlooked

When Jerry Steinberg first started working as a teacher in Sioux Lookout, Ont., he noticed that almost all of his colleagues who attended after-hours meetings were either childless or had grown kids.

"I thought, 'Wow, all my colleagues who have children are home now, and they're getting paid as much as we are,' " Mr. Steinberg says. "All they have to do is say 'My kid ...' and all is excused."

According to a 2003 study by the University of Tulsa, Steinberg isn't the only person to notice the disparity. More than half of America's childless singles feel put-upon - whether it be because of fewer benefits, longer hours, mandatory overtime, or less flexible vacation - by their married and child-rearing co-workers. As part of his own remedy, Steinberg started an international social club for childless couples and singles called NO KIDDING!, where Steinberg holds the eminent office of "Founding Non-Father."

After decades of "family friendly" initiatives in offices across the country, older and younger workers like Steinberg are speaking out about what they see as a particularly sensitive and decidedly obscure form of discrimination.

"I think one of the biggest issues is that people assume that if you're single, you don't have a life," says Bella DePaulo, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "You don't have anything to do with your time, or you don't have anything that qualifies as being as important as what married people have to do." Prof. DePaulo is the author of "Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After."

"It's just assumed that you will do whatever the rest of the workforce doesn't want to do," DePaulo says. "Their excuses can be totally flimsy, and on that excuse you have to work late."

On the other hand, a study to be released in August by the University of Texas at Arlington shows that fostering a singles-friendly office environment can distinctly increase employee retention.

Changing traditional "here's what you get" benefit plans to "cafeteria style" plans is now in vogue, for example. In a "cafeteria" plan, employees pick and choose benefits from a host of options, up to a specified monetary limit. The plan allows for different lifestyles without rewarding larger families with more benefits for the same job.

But according to the University of Tulsa study, the nonmonetary elements of employee relations may be just as important - if not more so.

"What we found was that ... if people felt social inclusion, they were more committed to their company," says Wendy Casper, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who worked on the study. "They felt more emotional attachment to their company, and they were less likely to look for another job." She notes that many "work- family" programs are being more neutrally renamed as "work-life" programs.

In her published discussion of the study's results, Ms. Casper and her colleagues speculate that single and childless workers have stronger needs for workplace social inclusion because their relationships and overall sense of community are more likely to be connected to their jobs.

The problem for employers, say management analysts, is that while leaning on single staffers for emergencies and immediate assistance may be efficient in the short-term, alienating workers is never a cost-efficient strategy for the longterm.

"All the employer has to do to handle adults without children," says Joan Williams, a law professor and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, "is to set up workplace structures that take into account that adults will have to leave. They will have to leave increasingly for elder-care crises, for child-care issues, and for ill spouses." If the employer "makes believe" that single or childless employees have no obligations outside the office, and relies on them always to pick up the slack, that can end up taxing the entire company, he says.

The question of better managing childless or single workers is one of pure capitalism, says Ms. Williams. When an estranged single worker quits an office, replacing him or her - including the cost of recruiting and training a replacement and the benefit to a competitor who might hire said employee - can cost as much as 75 to 150 percent of the former worker's annual pay.

What's more, single adults make up a whopping 40 percent of the full-time American workforce, according to a recent study by the American Association of Single People.

"Keeping valuable employees is a business imperative," says Williams. And "insisting that they have no priorities outside of work is not a viable model."

Some management plans already account for the needs of single workers. For example, some workplace managers appoint a rotating worker as a "floater" to fill in for workers called away for personal emergencies, rather than have the same workers stay late.

For Miriam Greenwald of Philadelphia, quitting her job as an elementary school art teacher was the best way to cope with a work environment that had all but excluded her.

"I felt invisible at times," says Ms. Greenwald. "Like I didn't count because [other teachers'] topics revolved around marriage and family. It was the natural thing to do."

Situations like Greenwald's, where an uncomfortable work environment is more a product of exclusive staff-room conversations than short-sighted benefits packages, can be difficult to miti- gate. But sometimes the subtle signals left by bosses can leave strong impressions on workplace culture. According to psychologist DePaulo, policies that deal with time off, overtime, and office picnics or other social gatherings can color workplace relations.

For example, DePaulo describes the annual office picnic at a university where she once taught. Each employee - regardless of how many guests he or she planned to bring to the event - was asked to pay a flat fee. Despite the fact that the policy was blatantly unfair to singles like DePaulo who were effectively subsidizing their colleagues' families, confronting the problem without sounding insensitive was a challenge.

"I hear this over and over again, where people say 'I raised this issue, and my colleagues were so angry at me for raising it,' " DePaulo says. "It does come with a cost of being stigmatized for complaining."

But to say that single and childless people are universally outraged or even dissatisfied is an overstatement. Many of the single and childless people interviewed emphasized their "pro-family" stance, stressing a desire for equity - rather than better treatment.

But some singles, like Roger Brokaw, wonder why so many workers without families have so little to say on the issue.

"For some reason, it's just not generating the kind of support that it should or could," says Mr. Brokaw, who was previously married and has a young son. He has spent years writing to his representative in Congress complaining about the lack of equity at his job in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force.

"Single people view it as a transient point in their lives," says Brokaw.

"Or maybe," he adds, "they're ashamed of being single."

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