Wednesday, May 7, 2003


More fairness for singles in the workplace

A commentary published today in the Miami Herald focused on the plight of singles in "family friendly" workplaces.  The author, Cindy Krischer Goodman, is a writer for the newspaper.

Goodman said that a colleague of hers was fuming last week. While on vacation, he had been asked to come in to work to finish an article. He wondered out loud why, as a single guy, his time off seemed less valuable to editors.

''There's a misperception that single people don't have outside lives,'' he said.

Other single reporters at the paper dittoed his indignation. They, too, feel that childless people in today's workplace get less respect when it comes to time off.

'Every business is falling over themselves to be `family friendly,' but that definition is strictly confined to married couples with kids,'' my colleague said.

'If someone has to take off to take their daughter to the dentist, they are never questioned. If I say I need off because I've got things around my house to get done, it's, like, `You want time off to do what?' ''

Goodman asked several relevant questions: Is there a backlash against childless workers? Is their personal time deemed less valuable than that of people who choose to have children? Are single and childless employees starting to feel left behind by the perceived benefits that parent-employees get?

Simmering beneath the surface of today's workplace is real tension, as more companies shift toward a family-friendly corporate culture. And the debate is likely to get more intense, as demographic trends show never-married, childless employees to be gaining in number in the workforce.

According to the U.S. Census, fewer Americans are marrying and having families or are waiting longer to do so, and the workforce is mirroring the shift. My colleague has a point.

But, as a working parent, Goodman said that she saw the other side of the debate: The truth is that childless workers often do have more flexibility with their free time.

As a working parent and, according to the statistics, a member of the majority, Goodman said she is pulled by circumstances that she may have no control over: A child becomes sick, for example, or demands my attendance at a school activity.

Now, Goodman said she is willing to put in overtime when it's needed, but, like most working parents, if she wants to spend time off with my kids, she is confined to certain weeks of the year when school is out.

She also sees a flip side that my colleague might overlook: she is a lot less likely to get that plum assignment to travel to the Caribbean, Paris or Iraq.

For managers, the issue of time off presents a dilemma.

''How do you weigh a request from someone who's got to get home because their family needs them versus someone who has to leave early for an exercise class? Each is just as important to the employee who is asking for the time off,'' a Herald editor said.

Adrienne Zvi, an investor-relations associate at Kos Pharmaceuticals, feels she's finally found the right job with a company that respects her personal life as an unmarried employee without children.

''In other jobs, I was always the first to get called in,'' Zvi said. ``I got called at home on weekends all the time. They thought I had no personal life because I'm young and single.''

Israel Kreps, owner of a Coral Gables public-relations firm, believes most employers aren't even aware that they might treat staffers differently because of their family status.

''On a grand scale, apples to apples, we do not treat people any differently,'' Kreps said. ``[Yet] you may not even realize it, but you're more likely to recruit someone [for weekend work] who is single because you assume they have more time.''

At the same time, single people often struggle with a sense of obligation to give up their personal time.

''It's hard to say no, because people think you don't have much else to do,'' said Sherrie Bauer, an attorney with the Fort Lauderdale firm of Conrad & Scherer. ``It's difficult to maintain a personal life. If I want to leave at 6 p.m. to go out with my girlfriends, people frown on that more than someone who runs out the door because of family.''

Beth Butler, vice president of Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell Realtors in Coral Gables, speaks for most companies when she says job responsibility determines who gets called when there's an emergency.

Where Butler finds more challenge is in responding to the requests for large blocks of vacation time that she gets mostly from childless employees.

''Working parents need flexibility in their hours or to use their sick time because a child is sick or off school,'' she said. ``It's usually a day here or there. I find it hardest to address large blocks of time that some single people want to take because they have business interests in another country or want to travel to exotic places.''

Human-resource consultant Marilyn Durant sees companies facing a growing disenchantment from singles, not only with time-off issues but also with their benefits situation.

''I see a trend with companies offering parents work/life benefits, but they also need to make opportunities for people who don't have family obligations. Maybe they could offer opportunities for professional development. They have to think about what's going to keep a single employee happy,'' said Durant, who works with the RSM McGladrey accounting and tax firm in Boca Raton and serves as South Florida district director for the Society for Human Resource Management.

''Companies need to make sure they offer enough benefits, enough choices, to all employees,'' she said. 'That's what work/life balance is about: It's respecting employees' lives after work -- and it's not just about families.''


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