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Being Single in the Workplace

by Dr. Michael Abruzzese

There's a mythology about being single. Fueled by advertisements, movies, television shows and perhaps encouraged by our own idealizations and selective nostalgia, the single life is supposed to be great. It's not as wonderful as the fantasy claims, of course, but the single life has its joys.

Working isn't always one of them, however. Compared to the current emphasis given to work and "family" issues, those workers without families can feel left out of the corporate family. In some cases their contributions can be marginalized by their married cohorts and they can even face overt discrimination by management.

Consider the more subtle ways this can happen. It's always true that management has a certain world view of what an employee "should" be in terms of productivity, commitment, trustworthiness and so on. In poorly run companies, this view is never fully articulated, but is more a series of "unwritten rules" that workers have to guess at to follow. In better-run companies, the rules are clear and straightforward with little or no guesswork needed. When something is fuzzy, there's a mechanism in place to clear thing up.

Business has only recently begun to realize that treating workers well is not only just plain good, it's also good business. But this world view varies with the company and the movement away from not trusting employees to empowering them is still in its infancy. Due to that, many a family-friendly policy is started before its true impact on all employees is fully understood.

Take flex hours, for example. Flex hours are a real boon to many families and when management offers such a perk, it's no surprise when a family man or woman wants to take advantage of it to spend more time with his or her family.

But why would a single person want to take advantage of it? Why would single employees want to work fewer hours?

Might they be starting a business of their own? Working part time for a competitor? Or maybe the employee just isn't committed to the job or company any more? After all, goes the reasoning, a family man or woman has obvious obligations, but what obligations does a single employee have?

As any single person can tell you: Plenty. Basically, single people have all the obligations that family people have except they have to tackle them all without a spouse to handle half the workload. Any single parent knows that burden. And just because a worker is single doesn't mean there's no partner or significant other sharing the worker's life.

To compensate for these little details, businesses have begun to move past work and family issues and expand their world view to encompass "work and life" issues. This is a great step forward as far as company policy goes, but it doesn't account for the more subtle ways in which single employees are faced with different expectations than are married employees.

In smaller companies, for example, where overtime is necessary and workers few, who is expected to work late -- the single worker or the married one? In management planning, is it the single guy who's seen as solid, reliable and able to handle multi-tasking or is it the family man with children?

In strategy meetings, is the single woman who's well groomed, immaculately dressed and on time seen as having had put the same effort into being at the meeting as is the married woman with children who's similarly dressed, groomed and on time?

In an informal survey taken at a recent management seminar, fully 10 percent of the participants identified themselves primarily as single people in their corporation rather than as marketers, managers, change agents and so on.

It's striking that of all the roles that these professionals were called upon to play each day, they most strongly felt that being single was the strongest psychological role for them in the company and what defined them in the work place. It is in helping single employees confront this psychological role and its perceived corporate limitations that management can make a valuable and meaningful contribution to the entire workforce.

Women and other minorities, of course, have known for years that they've had to work twice as hard just to be accorded the same regard as the archetypal white, married male. Single people are learning the same thing and management will have come a long way when it can recognize and equalize the subtle ways in which all their workers can feel valued as persons as well as contributors to the corporate vision.

Michael Abruzzese, Ph.D., is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, director of the Institute for Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology Inc. and a consulting psychologist in Boston, Mass.

This article originally appeared in HR Today and has been reprinted with permission of the author.

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