Where do "family-friendly" workplaces leave singles?

New research shows that single-friendly is also good business.

Published June 14, 2006 12:34AM (EDT)

Co-worker: "I have to leave at 6 to pick up my kid."

Me, single/childless: "Well, I have to leave at 6 because I want to."

If I had a nickel for every time I've had some version of that exchange, I'd be enjoying early retirement in Ibiza right now. (Note to placement professionals: My line of dialogue takes place in my head.) It got a little less frequent when I got married (on the gotta-go scale, quality time with husband ranks higher than, say, potentially pivotal date or quality time with TiVo). But even though I freelance, and have been doing so for most of my professional life, it still happens in some form or another. In fact, it has occurred while I was working as a volunteer.

I do not resent the people who have to leave at 6. You gotta pick up your kid, you gotta pick up your kid. I understand that being a working parent requires a superhuman balancing act. And one day soon, universe willing, I'll be one of those gotta-pick-up-my-kid people. But what I have resented is the implicit, even unconscious assumption that single or childless people -- whether or not that status was their choice -- couldn't possibly have anything more pressing going on in their lives than staying late to hammer out the sales report. (I imagine that some people in long-term unmarried and/or homosexual relationships may experience shades of the same thing.) First of all, the single/childless could have, say, aging parents to care for -- that counts as family, no? Second, the single/childless are also entitled to, you know, just go home. In short, just because you're single doesn't mean you should have to work more.

And according to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, some single/nonparent workers are organizing and saying out loud the things I've so often said to myself. "After decades of 'family friendly' initiatives in offices across the country, older and younger workers ... are speaking out about what they see as a particularly sensitive and decidedly obscure form of discrimination," the article states, noting that singles make up 40 percent of the workforce. While acknowledging that some employers have made significant efforts to treat child-free workers equitably, the Monitor reports that a 2003 study by the University of Tulsa found that over 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." The article doesn't specify exactly what groups such as No Kidding, a primarily social organization that has apparently been vocal about the issue, are doing to enforce change, but their feelings, and those of some people who have observed the phenomenon, are clear.

"People assume that if you're single, you don't have a life," Bella DePaulo, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After," told the Monitor. "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. It's just assumed that you will do whatever the rest of the workforce doesn't want to do. Their excuses can be totally flimsy, and on that excuse you have to work late."

Some such singles report feeling "stigmatized" for speaking up about, for example, having to pay flat fees for family picnics even if they were bringing only themselves -- if they speak up at all. (One unmarried person interviewed by the Monitor suggests that perhaps some people stay mum because they're "ashamed of being single" and/or hoping to not be single for long.) Still, management science does appear to be on their side. A University of Texas study to be released in August shows that "fostering a singles-friendly office environment can distinctly increase employee retention," reports the Monitor.

By "singles-friendly" they don't mean nightly margarita mixers or coed naked photocopying. They mean, for example, "cafeteria-style" benefit plans -- apparently now "in vogue" -- that allow employees to "pick and choose" what they need, instead of "rewarding larger families with more benefits for the same job."

The Tulsa study also found that single-friendliness is good business. As the Monitor put it: "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 long term." Apparently, the cost of replacing a disgruntled single -- including recruiting, training and the benefit to the competitor who hires him or her -- can climb to 150 percent of the ex-employee's pay.

"What we found was that ... if people felt social inclusion, they were more committed to their company," one of the University of Tulsa researchers told the Monitor. "They felt more emotional attachment to their company, and they were less likely to look for another job."

So yes, "family-friendly" we love. But it's also good to remember that for many singles, "family" includes friends, siblings, parents, even numero uno. And that the policies we really need to support are those that allow us to balance work with life.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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