|In the frenzy of work/family directives, it's easy to
forget employees without kids or spouses. They're sick of carrying extra workloads.
They're tired of fewer benefits. Here's what they say about it - and what you can do about
it. 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.
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
Americahas 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
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
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 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
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
re-balancing 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
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
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.
really constitutes afamily?" 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
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
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
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 compay's flexible-benefits plan allows workers to construct coverage best for the -
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
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.
RELATED ARTICLE: Expert Advice Take a few hints from single, childless employees. Learn a
few lessons from companies who balance their practices well.
What Singles Say:
* Maureen Mack, HR consultant, Union Bank of California: "It's almost like a
double-edged sword at this point for companies to develop some family-friendly types of
policies and programs without totally alienating employees who don't have any advantage in
* Donna Manning, personnel technician, Wake County Government: "People who get
married and have children, that's their choice. But single people are considered not
normal, sort of. We're not doing what we're supposed to be doing. People say: 'Well, one
day it will all work out for you ...'"
* Martin Johnson (a pseudonym), insurance industry professional: "It's the kind of
thing where if you challenged somebody on it, they'd say, 'Yeah, you're right.' But we're
not conditioned to think that way in society - look at the political arena. The thing
they're saying is that we're going away from these family values and we need to go
* Leslie Lafayette, founder, ChildFree Network: "It's downright discriminatory for an
employer to offer more or better benefits because you have children. Different is one
thing. Companies that have a menu of benefits are the companies that are really
knowledgeable and humane."
What Companies Say:
* Monica Brunaccini, director of HR, Consolidated Group, a HealthPlan Services company:
"Benefits tend to be the focal point for people when it comes to how you define
single or married. A lot of companies are offering domestic-partner benefits, for which
you don't have to define your status. The playing field needs to be more even. It's going
to be interesting to see how it all pans out."
* Mike Morley, senior vice president and director of HR, Eastman Kodak Co.: "You have
to believe that diversity is a business imperative. Once you get those fundamentals in
place, some of the activities important for your organization will become pretty
* Terri Ireton, manager, work and life programs, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of
Massachusetts: "I don't think people realize here who's single and who's not. I think
the ones with children just take better advantage of employee programs."
* Linda Foster, director Midwest region, Work/Family Directions: "A lot of companies
have put in flexible-work practices more as an accommodation to employees with
dependents], not really seeing the business strategy behind them. Those companies aren't
as successful with their programs ."
* Donna Klein, director work/life programs, Marriott International: "What we're
trying to do is manage the life cycle. I think people who don't have dependents have an
equal number of challenges in this complex society we live in that need to be addressed.
Ours is a very realistic approach."
RELATED ARTICLE: Are You Really Fair?
The number of never-married adults nearly doubled between 1970 and 1994 - from 21.4
million to 44.2 million - according to the Census Bureau. Couples who do marry now more
than ever are choosing to remain childless. Has your company culture shifted its attitude
to treat these people as equals, not anomalies? Ask yourself these questions to determine
how fair your policies are to single and childless employees:
* Are employees without children expected to stay later than those with children?
* Are more exceptions to rules governing time schedules and work arrangements applied to
those with children?
* Does an equitable amount of childless employees take advantage of flexible-work
* Do single and childless employees take more of the traveling assignments?
* Do married employees or those with children seem to receive first dibs on vacation and
holiday time off?
* Are your benefits skewed toward dependent-care issues?
* When you have company parties, do you invite all employees' children and allow singles
to bring only one guest?
* Do you have paid-time-off banks, which allow all employees equal days off - or do you
divide leave into sick and vacation, which allows more employees with children to take
sick days to care for kids?
* Do you regularly survey all groups of employees on their needs?
* Do you offer more benefits coverage for employees who are married with children than
those who are single?
* Do you have or are you considering flexible benefits, which allow all employees to
create a package that best meets their needs?
* Do you have or are you considering domestic-partner benefits, which prevent employees in
committed relationships from being penalized for not being married?
* Is the title of your program work/family or work/life?