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
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.