Is the American workplace hostile to singles?

  • Share
  • Read Later

This I know: WiP often reads like a parenting blog. Or a marriage blog. Or both. That’s because
a) I’m a parent, and
b) I’m married.
I defend my right to kvetch in this space on these topics, as it says right here in my mission statement that Work in Progress is a blog about “life on the job–and the job of life.” Having a family deeply affects how I relate to, perform on and handle my work, and therefore it bears discussing in a workplace forum. So say I.

So when I saw the cover story of the October issue of HR Magazine–titled “Are You Too Family-Friendly?”–I rubbed my hands with glee as I prepared for a full frontal WiP attack. Reading through the data-packed article, however, I changed my mind. It’s a stupid headline, deliberately (or, worse, unwittingly) provocative and hackle-raising, designed to engender conflict. And who needs that in this day and age? What we need is understanding, and the body of the piece, by Susan J. Wells, contributes toward that goal. I do, however, have some bones to pick. I disagree with parts of the premise, and with some of the reporting used to buttress the argument.

(HR Magazine is a for-the-trade publication whose articles online are accessible only to members and the press, so I’ve included chunks of it below.)

The thrust of the story is this: There’s a steadily growing population of unmarried people in the U.S. and, therefore, in the American workplace. They have rights, too. They have lives, too. They’d like access to some of the benefits extended to parents, too.

If you have doubts about the invasion of the singles, check this out:


Wells cites more stats (bolds mine):

Unmarried and single U.S. residents numbered 92 million in 2006, making up 42 percent of all people 18 and older. That’s up from 89 million, or 41 percent, in 2005. Sixty percent of the unmarried and single adult men and women in 2006 had never been married, up from 50 percent in 1970. Another 25 percent were divorced, and 15 percent were widowed.

Single people can and do raise children, of course, but many don’t: while nearly half of all households had minor children in 1960, by 2000, it was down to one-third.


The article describes a growing resentment among working singles toward working parents.

What causes this workplace unease to boil over? Childless singles feel put upon, taken for granted and exploited—whether because of fewer benefits, less compensation, longer hours, mandatory overtime, or less flexible schedules or leaves—by married and child-rearing co-workers.

That may be true. These may be universally held gripes held by working unmarried people. Here’s my beef. The article cites an Adecco USA survey that found 59% of men aged 35 to 44 held a negative perception of working mothers–but I don’t believe that survey said anything about whether or not those men were married. (It’s kind of more troubling, isn’t it, if that 59% included married men, some with children of their own?)

And while many of the surveys cited in the article describe a perception of inequality among singles, none seem to document actual inequality. Do unmarried and childless men really get paid less than married and child-rearing women, as the above statement implies?

Despite my nitpicking, I think it’s important for employers to address even a feeling of unfairness among singles. Take this example described in the article. If I were single and childless at this company, I’d be totally pissed:

[Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After], recalls an annual department picnic at a previous teaching job. Every employee was asked to pay a flat fee—no matter whether they were single or were bringing a spouse and five kids. Although the policy was unfair to singles, effectively causing them to subsidize colleagues’ families, confronting the problem without sounding insensitive was a challenge, she says.

The good news is that more employers are extending more equitable environment to all employees. Researchers list five qualities of a singles-friendly workplace:

• Social inclusion
• Equal work opportunities
• Equal access to benefits
• Equal respect for nonwork life
• Equal work expectations

As for those benefits, things appear to be improving:

70 percent of 326 HR executives surveyed in 2006 by CCH and Harris Interactive said their organizations offer paid-time-off programs bundling vacation, sick and personal leave into one bank of time off that employees can manage more flexibly. In addition, 37 percent of 590 HR professionals polled for the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2007 Benefits Survey said their companies offer flexible or cafeteria-benefits plans allowing employees to choose from a variety of benefits and designate a set amount of money to pay for the benefits. These types of plans can allow for different lifestyles without rewarding employees having larger families with more benefits for the same job, for example.

But employers still have a blind spot when it comes to benefits for singles. A 2006 study by The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California-Los Angeles Law School found that 20% of same-sex domestic partners were uninsured, compared to 10% of married, heterosexual partners. But get this: a third of heterosexual, unmarried partners lacked health insurance.

What do you all think: is the American workplace unfriendly toward singles?