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Single's Backlash No Spouse, No Kids, No Respect

September 1, 1996
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Work/Life Balance, Featured Article
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Maureen Mack jokes that at her next job, she'll make up a family. A husband, a couple of kids, the whole shebang. As an HR consultant for Union Bank of California in San Francisco—and a single employee without dependents—Mack doesn't just hear about the growing frustrations of "family-less" workers, she lives them firsthand.

Like many companies today, Union Bank of California has been focusing much attention on work/ family programs. But—also like many companies today—its HR department is starting to hear murmurs of dissatisfaction from workers who have no need for such initiatives—and resent their repercussions. "From an employee-relations perspective, what we hear is, 'Great, my boss runs out the door every day at 5 p.m. to make sure she picks up her kids at day care,' and with the rest of us, it's, 'You can't leave yet because the work's not done—your cat can be fed later,'" says Mack.

It's a family-friendly world out there today, and that means that unintentionally it may be downright unfriendly for those who don't fit the mold. Since the late '80s, Corporate America has been playing "keeping up with the Joneses" with work/family benefits. Day-care centers, parental leave, sick-child care and other goodies have become ubiquitous. HR has worked long and hard for these breakthroughs, which keep a good portion of employees satisfied and focused.

But the pendulum swings both ways. As the workplace has become more family-friendly, workers who aren't "married with children" have started to wonder where their share of the breaks are. "[Employees are] able to add children and spouses onto insurance, and that really is a benefit," says Donna Manning, a personnel technician for Wake County Government in Raleigh, North Carolina—and single. "[But I] don't get to add to that [insurance] pool. They're telling me they're giving me these great benefits.... dependent coverage and dependent insurance and day care. But you needn't tell me that it's a benefit because it's not for me."

A backlash is on its way, and it may be pretty ugly. Single, childless employees feel they're being stiffed on all fronts: They have a smaller share of benefits, they have a larger share of late nights and last-minute travel. Their needs go ignored, unrecognized or unrespected. In a 1995 Conference Board report, 47% of respondents felt that parents received more support from their companies than nonparents. An April 1996 Personnel Journal survey revealed even more shocking numbers:

  • To "With all the work/family programs being introduced today, are single employees without children being left out?" 80% responded yes.
  • To "Do single employees end up carrying more of the burden than married employees?" 81% answered yes.
  • To "Do single employees receive as much attention to their needs as married-with-children employees?" 80% responded no.
  • To "Will Corporate America see a backlash from single employees?" 69% said yes.

No one is recommending that companies begin stripping employees of their family-needs benefits. After all, these benefits are generally grounded in business strategy. But therein lies the irony: If work/family benefits are designed to attract, retain and boost the productivity of working professionals—to, in a nutshell, make people work better and smarter—why do so many childless employees say they're bearing longer, harder hours for co-workers who leave mid-afternoon for PTA meetings? If work/family benefits are supposed to nurture a more cohesive team of on-the-ball, work-focused employees, why is there a growing chasm between those with traditional families and those without? Finally, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 66% of employees in the workplace at any given time are not rearing children under the age of 18—why are childless employees feeling so alienated?

It's not an impossible situation. A lot of companies out there do a great job of balancing the needs of parent employees with those of nonparents. Don't assume your company is one of them, however, just because you haven't heard the complaints. Child-rearing is a touchy subject, and single employees don't want to come off as poor sports or anti-child. Yet many areas under HR's charge are ripe for examination for inequities, and most employees would be willing to offer their opinions, if asked in a fair and open way. Also, there are some good examples out there of organizations completing the evolution from work/family to work/life. Like any diversity issue, you can best begin by raising awareness—yours and your company's.

Societal prejudices yield workplace prejudices.
Our society is set up to reward its members for getting married and having children. There are tax breaks for children. There are insurance breaks for being married. We refer to the whole process as "settling down," implying that if marriage and kids aren't in a person's future, obviously it's due to a lack of maturity.

A quick scan of both President Clinton's and Bob Dole's campaign-approved rhetoric underscores just how obsessed our society is with family. Clinton praises the V-chip (the TV viewing control device), school uniforms and curfews—a kid-centric platform. Dole's most popular speech to date was his harangue against Hollywood's corruption of family values.

It was the 1992 presidential election, in fact, that raised Leslie Lafayette's hackles one time too many. "Everything that everyone was talking about was family values, and [everyone was] parading their kids and grandkids out on the stage," says Lafayette, who is single and without children. "I found it really offensive. It felt as if I didn't fit in anywhere. I knew there had to be other people out there like me."

So Lafayette started the ChildFree Network, an organization for childless adults that offers a bimonthly newsletter, seminars, conferences and sociopolitical advocacy. In the four years since its inception, the group has ballooned to 33 chapters across the United States, with more than 2,500 members—and growing. Lafayette has accepted requests for interviews from Donahue to Oprah, and her mailbox is packed with requests for information on the Citrus Heights, California-based network.

"It's like you're totally invisible. I think there's a perception that unless you have children you're not a complete adult."

It's an idea whose time has come: According to census figures, nearly 20 million adults over the age of 35 are childless, and American Demographics magazine projects an increase to 31 million by 2010. Nearly one in five baby-boomer women will remain childless. Why, then, asks Lafayette, aren't childless people getting more attention—and respect? "It's like you're totally invisible," she says. "I think there's a perception that unless you have children you're not a complete adult in this society.... It's not an issue about being punitive and saying parents shouldn't get breaks. It's hard to have children, that's one of the reasons I don't have them. On the other hand why should I be penalized because I don't have them?... In a world that's overpopulated, why are we encouraging people to have children? What is the big support issue about making it easier and easier for everybody to reproduce?"

Martin Johnson, a professional in the insurance industry (who asked that his name be changed), notices the discrepancies: "It's almost a badge of honor to be married and have kids. I notice people who have their time restricted for traveling and staying late because of kids. If I call in sick, [people think], 'Oh, yeah, he probably stayed out real late last night and just couldn't get up' vs. [what they'd think if I had kids. Then it'd be] I called in because the baby's sick." Johnson says he's seen prime vacation times such as summer and holidays doled out to people with children before singles. "Society doesn't come out and say you're a second-class citizen," he says. "But you feel that way because of the underlying culture, whether it's corporate culture or societal values." When a group of employees feels discriminated against—or at the very least, slighted—you have a problem, and you're generally going to get some friction.

Friction between haves (spouses and kids) and have-nots threaten work/family's purpose.
A few years back, when Hurricane Bob whirred over the East Coast, Monica Brunaccini's former employer asked for volunteers to keep the mutual-fund company open around the clock until the storm passed. "We walked through the building just to see who was there and thanked them for staying," remembers Brunaccini, now director of HR for Consolidated Group, a HealthPlan Services company in Framingham, Massachusetts. "By the time we got to the second floor, we were joking that all the single people stayed and worked and anyone who was married or had children was gone."

This, perhaps, is the crux of the problem. When a hurricane is on its way, what good parent wouldn't want to head home to his or her kids? And if you aren't married with kids, isn't it the right thing to do to volunteer for occasional extra hours—because there's no absolute need to get home? It's when this starts to be the rule rather than the exception that resentment arises.

"I don't think anybody thinks about the fact that the single employee might have needs specific to him or her," says Mack. "The general impression is that you have a less stressful life because you don't go home to the demands of a family. I don't think anyone is even asking the question in most HR departments, which is: What should we be looking at for the single employee?" Mack herself has seen her personal activities fall to the wayside in the '90s work crunch—hobbies don't as easily justify time off as kids do. "I used to sing with a local choir. I don't anymore because I don't know if I'm going to get out of here in time for rehearsals. My life would definitely be different if I thought the [company] was going to [make] a commitment to that kind of thing."

In Corporate America's credit-worthy ambition to be more family-friendly, things have become a little skewed: An employee taking an early day to watch little Billy's soccer game raises few eyebrows anymore. But have a single employee say she's leaving at 3 o'clock to go to a political rally, and you'll probably hear a different story. "Why isn't my priority just as important as your priority?" asks Manning. "If your priority is your child, good. But maybe my priority is taking an art class, and why shouldn't I have the same option to make it my priority?" It's these little things that add up to bigger issues: Manning says on several occasions single people—including herself—have had supervisors tell them they'd be attending training out of town; employees with kids were asked if it was convenient for them. She's even heard previous employers say they need to bring men in higher because they had families to support.

Johnson acknowledges that childless employees bear part of the blame—if they don't want to work late, they need to make it clear. If they feel they're being treated unfairly, they need to say something. "I work [longer] hours compared to people who have families," he says. "Part of it's [my fault]. I know when it's time to get off work, I could just drop my stuff and go too. But I feel like I'm not in the position to do that as readily because I really don't have an excuse. Nobody has ever said that to me, it's just subtle things."

The situation isn't just unhealthy for childless employees; it's bad for those who have children too. Consider a company that has reengineered work schedules for parent employees without actually reengineering the work load. While some childless employees resent those who rush out at 5 p.m., some employees with kids resent the singles, whose late hours give them more visibility, more assignments and maybe more chance for promotion. Johnson, who is the only single employee in his work unit, described a recent blowup: "I stayed real late some nights getting work done and I just mentioned that I ended up staying until 10 p.m. My co-worker [snapped], 'Well, I'm not able to do that.' I tried then to look at it from her perspective—that she's at a disadvantage when I'm here working all these hours, and the employer is going to think that I'm harder working than she is. We haven't sat down and talked about it. It's not an issue I think we'll discuss."

It's not an issue many employers are discussing, but it's one that needs to be aired. You can't fix a problem until you acknowledge it.

Employers who are willing to discuss and examine the issue are the ones who will fix it.
A true self-examination among HR and top managers at your company is the first step to rebalancing the workplace. How often are single employees the ones burning the midnight oil—and are they doing it for themselves or for the entire group? How many times are childless employees the ones who end up at the office during prime vacation time or holidays? Are the last-minute business trips portioned out fairly, or does the company rely on childless employees in these emergencies? Is flextime promoted more to workers who've just had babies? Does your company offer additional coverage for an employee who has several children, while the childless employee in the next cubicle receives the same old offerings? As Lafayette says: "Question yourself. Is it the employer's place to pass some kind of value on raising children? It's discrimination against childless people."

But to get the true picture, you need to talk openly with your employees—childless and those with children. Because the employee who takes the business trips nobody wants may be doing so because he or she just really likes to travel, while the employee with three kids may feel slighted that the company never asks him or her to go on these assignments. "Probably the best thing companies could do would be to at least raise the issue," says Mack. "Let people know [the company's] looking at it and if anybody has some ideas to call their manager or HR."

Lafayette offers the model of Corning, New York-based Corning Inc., which regularly gathers a cross-section of employees—young, old, married, single, childless and with kids—to let them just speak about what they want from their benefits. "After all, aren't benefits given so that employees will stay with the company, so their lives will be less stressful and so they can devote more quality time to their job?" asks Lafayette. "If you're building resentment with your benefits, it seems a terrible waste of money. My suggestion is pretty simple: Bring everybody in, sit down [and talk]. A review across-the-board of what it is you're offering, how effective it is and how happy your employees are with it seems to me to be in order."

As an internal consultant, that's just what Donna Klein, director of work/life programs for Washington, D.C.-based Marriott International, does all the time: surveys, focus groups, you name it. Only 40% of Marriott's population has dependents under the age of 12, and Klein began suspecting several years ago that her department was too dependent-care oriented. So she did a very simple thing: She asked employees. What she found was that many single and childless employees were self-selecting out of work/family initiatives.

This was not the intention. So in 1992, Klein's department began a makeover by changing its name to "work/life" from "work/family" to be more inclusive. The new department also began rolling out educational pieces to assist all types of employees, not just those with kids: personal-finance management, elder care and housing and tenant rights.

Just recently, the work/life program introduced an initiative in development for 18 months: the associate resource line. "We developed this totally new product... that's a holistic approach to life management," says Klein. Employees can dial a toll-free number and reach a team of master's degreed social workers for counseling on such subjects as elder care and child care (about 35% of the intakes), as well as alcohol and substance abuse, housing issues, debt management, depression, home remodeling, living successfully with relatives, purchasing a car—the list goes on.

Klein knows that 85% of the calls are made by the hourly workforce, and this workforce is largely single, so Marriott knows it's hitting its mark. The other nice thing about the resource line is that these third-party counselors track the topics of inquiry and report back to Klein. That way the work/life program can identify less obvious issues of the workforce—it's how Klein knew employees wanted an education piece on housing and tenant rights. "We treat people holistically," says Klein. "That's why we're as inclusive as we possibly can be with our initiatives."

Similarly, when Consolidated Group wanted to see what employees thought of their benefits, the HR department designed a survey asking employees for feedback: what they wanted; what they liked and didn't like. When the results were in, Brunaccini was able to confirm her suspicion: The company's 201 single employees had very different needs than the 332 married employees. In general, individuals with dependents thought the company should increase its medical contribution for insurance. The single employees thought they should receive the same flat contribution paid for employees with children, so the singles would have their benefits paid equally.

Brunaccini knew many of the offerings evened out: Consolidated Group paid about as much for tuition reimbursement as it did for day-care reimbursement annually. About 75% of people going back to school were single; 75% of those using child care were married or had children. Still, Brunaccini believed that benefits would be perceived as more fair if they weren't structured specifically with singles or married or childless employees in mind. "What really constitutes a family?" she asks. "In one area it may be a grandmother and grandfather raising their grandchild. In another it could be a single parent and her two kids. In another it could be two people who've lived together for several years—same sex or different sex. Staying in those typical definitions of single or married, childless or with children doesn't work anymore. We need to shift our paradigm and look at things more realistically."

For HR departments that want to move out of the proverbial box, many options exist. Most agree you should begin, however, by considering flexible benefits, domestic-partner benefits, flexible work arrangements and a more holistic approach to HR policies in general.

Certain policies are more friendly to single and childless employees.
Now that Brunaccini is looking outside the married-with-children box, she—like many progressive HR professionals—is considering a shift toward flexible benefits. By providing a flat dollar amount, employees have the power to allocate their benefits to the areas in which they'll most, well, benefit. Maybe a married employee wants to increase medical care and drop vision altogether. Maybe a childless employee doesn't want extra health coverage but would like increased dental and vision. Now they don't have to grouse about perceived inequities—they can fix them. "It takes time and effort," says Brunaccini. "But I think companies need to be more proactive and not just [keep] the traditional way of developing benefits or programs, because it's a completely different world now."

One company that Lafayette's ChildFree Network sings the praises of is Eastman Kodak Co., based in Rochester, New York, for its sensible approach to human resources policies and practices. Mike Morley, senior vice president of HR, says the company's fair treatment stems from the fact that it embraces and supports diversity among all its 99,000 employees. "Our [values] say there's no room for exclusion of anybody, so you can't just [focus] on the mainstream population of those married with two children," he says. The company's flexible-benefits plan allows workers to construct coverage best for them—and requires higher contributions for employees who want to add dependents. Just as important, Kodak will add domestic-partner benefits to its offerings in 1997, so that it doesn't penalize people in committed relationships for not being married. The partner may be same sex or opposite sex. Kodak's message: "We're not going to make judgments on [employees'] lifestyles," say Morley. "Everybody can contribute—needs to contribute—and we need to have practices in place that allow that to happen."

Perhaps the piece de resistance for many childless employees is Kodak's leave of absence for a "personal unique opportunity." The policy allows employees to pursue life-enriching activities that don't just include parenting. Although there's a review board that looks over all requests, the qualifying parameters are fairly open. Morley gives the example of an employee who accepts a three-month volunteer assignment. Or a worker might want to pursue a degree full time, and leave for up to three years. In that situation there's no guarantee of the same job upon return, but the individual would receive special attention in the re-application process. Shorter-term leaves (generally one month or less) guarantee the person his or her job and accumulated service while out. The leave policy ensures childless employees aren't left to stew over the 12 weeks' absence that new parents receive under FMLA. If childless employees have an activity of similar passion to pursue, they can head out for a while too.

Inclusion is the key word.
Time off and more control over time in general have been hot issues of late—and ones that employees who have children traditionally have put to better use. Terri Ireton, manager of work and life programs at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, didn't want this to be the case when the company introduced flexible-work arrangements. She wanted these opportunities to be equally advertised to—and equally accessible to—all employees. "A lot of our benefits are around family issues," she concedes. "Because we were getting some feedback, we started around a year ago to look at what we could do for the entire population. One of the things we heard strongly was that everyone wanted some flexibility in their lives. So we instituted flexible-work arrangements and issued guidelines to make sure it wasn't just mothers being granted these." The Boston-based company now offers part-time, flextime, compressed workweeks, telecommuting, job sharing and 30-hour workweeks with full benefits. How does Ireton know they're being used by all workforce members? Firsthand. "I'm single, I have no children, and I work at home really whenever I want to," she says.

Finally, as you review HR policies, strive for a more holistic approach. Linda Foster, director Midwest region, of Work/ Family Directions, says it's easy to do if employers keep in mind the business justification for work/life benefits: They're there to keep the company running more smoothly and productively. "I really used to hear a concern [more] for those who had dependents," she admits. "It was: 'Those people have more needs than others, so let's focus there.' These days I hear much more [from clients] that they have to think about everybody's needs—how do we get our business results, what do we need to do to support employees to get our business results—and not just the ones with dependents."

Foster suggests looking at all your dependent-care offerings and giving them a more inclusive twist. Instead of offering only day-care reimbursement, offer elder-care support too. Instead of choosing a dependent-care research-and-referral service, choose a personal-care service—like Work/Family Directions' LifeWorks, a toll-free assist number that offers not only information on good day care, but also resources on volunteer opportunities, educational opportunities, relocation services and more. "That way, your message is: If you don't have dependents, we can still help you with other parts of your personal life," says Foster. "It's a very comprehensive resource-and-referral program [that] includes caring for yourself, not just dependents."

That's really what single and childless employees want: The message from their employers that they matter just as much as the co-workers with baby and wedding photos on their desks. The message must be pushed through policies, practices, benefits—and attitudes. Our society tends to think people can't be complete without a wedding band and a trailing brood. Those without either will tell you it's not true. For Corporate America to run fairly, and productively, HR needs to listen.

Personnel Journal, September 1996, Vol. 75, No. 9, pp. 58-69.

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