Education and Skills

Why office attitudes towards single employees needs to change

Too often, employers believe that single, childless people are emotionally untethered and financially untroubled. Image: REUTERS/Erin Siegal

Bella DePaulo
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There are a lot of misconceptions about single people in the modern-day workplace. A former employer once brushed me off when I raised the issue of salary, telling me that because I was a single person with no children, my concerns couldn’t really be about money—after all, I had no one else to support.

Or consider the reaction of former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell when Janet Napolitano received the nomination for secretary of homeland security in 2008. “Janet’s perfect for the job,” Rendell said. “Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19, 20 hours a day to it.”

Too often, employers believe that single, childless people are emotionally untethered and financially untroubled, which means they ought to be free to stay late, travel on weekends, show up on holidays, and take whatever vacation slots married employees haven’t already claimed—all of which puts singles in a highly unfair (not to mention undesirable) position. It’s time that employers stopped taking advantage of single employees—and started recognizing the truth about their lives.

Single people have important ties to friends, family, and community

Negative stereotypes about single people hold that they are isolated, lonely, and focused only on themselves—perfect candidates to come in to work, or to stay there, when no one else wants to. But research shows otherwise.

In fact, single people do more to maintain their relationships with their friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents than married people. They are better at staying in touch with them, and helping and encouraging them. It is different for couples who move in together or get married. They tend to become more insular, even if they don’t have children.

When aging parents need help, they get it disproportionately from their grown children who are single. That’s true whether they are black or white, and whether their offspring are sons or daughters. Single people are also more likely to be there for people who are disabled or seriously ill and need sustained help, even when the people needing the help are not relatives.

Single people are rooted in their communities and towns in significant ways. They participate in public events more often, and take more music and art classes. They volunteer more than married people do for a wide variety of organizations.

When the workday ends, when the weekend is in sight, when holidays roll around, and when it is time to plan vacations, singles often have people in their lives they want to see—people who care about them, depend on them, and feel like family, even if they are not family in the traditional sense.

Meanwhile, some single people look forward to savoring their solitude. Some have interests and commitments they pursue with a passion. As a group, single people vary enormously, but they have one thing in common: They all have a life outside of work. They want the same opportunity as everyone else to do as they wish when they are—or should be—off the clock.

Workplaces should ensure that fairness. Over time, assignments to stay late or cover holidays or accept the less desirable vacation times should even out, so that single people are not singled out.

Ideally, only in special circumstances should employees be asked to justify their requests to take time off. Otherwise, in a culture that still celebrates married people and their families and remains skeptical of single people and the important people in their lives, single people may be treated unfairly. For example, employers may be tempted to take more seriously a request to take time off to care for an ailing spouse than an ailing sibling or close friend.

Already, though, single people are at a disadvantage when they want to provide care for others or receive it themselves. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, anyone in an eligible workplace, regardless of marital status, can take unpaid leave to care for a parent or child. Married people, though, can also take time off to care for their spouse. Single people are not covered to care for a similarly important person in their lives, nor can such a person take time to care for them.

When workers need to be relocated, some single people may be happy to get the nod. Others, though, may see that as a special hardship. They include single people who are rooted in their communities, who have developed and nurtured networks of friends and neighbors, and who have relatives they are helping. They also include singles who chose their cities and towns for their cultural offerings, diversity, bike trails, or football teams, and do not want to move to places that have no such things.

The financial fragility of people who are single

Years before my employer mindlessly presumed that I had no one to support, my mother was widowed. But he never stopped to consider whether she needed my financial support. Other single people are providing support in other ways—for example, quietly accumulating college funds for their nieces and nephews, or welcoming them into their homes when times are tough.

When single people are caring for their parents and others who need their help, they do so at greater economic risk than married people are. If they put in fewer hours at work, or step away from their jobs, they do not have a spouse to pick up the financial slack—or keep them on their employer-sponsored health insurance. Similarly, when single people get laid off or lose their jobs, they are particularly vulnerable for the same reasons.

Single people who live alone lose out on economies of scale. They don’t get to split their rent or mortgage, their utilities, or any other household expenses with another person. Single people also miss out on all the offers that are cheaper by the couple, from health-club memberships and travel packages to discounts on insurance.

Even more significantly, single people are excluded from more than 1,000 federal laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. For example, single people are subject to more taxes and penalties on IRAs and estate transfers. They get less financial flexibility and security from Social Security. When lifelong single people die, they cannot leave their benefits to anyone else—they go back into the system—and no one else can leave their benefits to a single person either.

A study that included only women showed that by the time they are nearing retirement age, lifelong single women have far less net wealth than married women. The disparity is even bigger for black women than white women.

Single men (though not single women) are paid less than their married counterparts. Even when single and married men have the same level of seniority and competence, and even when they are identical twins, married men are paid substantially more. Nonetheless, single men are no less generous than married men in the money they give to relatives, and more generous in the money they give to friends.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently released income tax rates for 35 member countries, for single people with no children and one-earner couples with two children. In most nations, including the US, single people are taxed more than the couples. The disparity is greater in the US than it is in all but one of the other 34 nations.

Financial disadvantages in taxation, Social Security, health spending, and housing expenses add up. By one estimate, single women, relative to married women, lose out on somewhere between a half million and a million dollars over the course of their adult lives.

The real reasons you should value your single workers

Single workers shouldn’t be saddled with lower salaries or extra hours just because they’re single—they have plenty of more valuable attributes to offer employers, based on their life experiences.

Do you want workers who can get things done, either by doing the tasks themselves or recruiting others to help? Single people—especially those who live alone—have spent a lifetime honing those skills. Unlike married people who often divide the tasks of everyday life and master only the ones for which they are responsible, single people figure out how to get all of them done.

Do you want workers who have the confidence to stand by their own opinions, even when groupthink is headed in a different direction? Research suggests that single people are better at that.

Do you want workers who are committed not just to their jobs but to their organizations or professions? A study that included only men suggests that singles are the employees for you. For example, single men participate more than married men do in professional societies, unions, and farm organizations.

Do you want workers who are constantly learning and growing? That, too, is more likely to describe lifelong single people than people who get married.

Do you want workers who show up primarily for the paycheck and other concrete benefits, or people who have landed in your workplace because they find the work meaningful? If it is the latter, you probably want workers who are single. Research shows that people who stay single value meaningful work more than people who marry, and that they were already expressing those values in high school, before anyone was getting hitched.

How to make your workplace equally welcoming, friendly, and fair to all your workers

I love living single and I have chosen not to have children. Because these are not fraught issues for me, I can feel genuine joy for people who have followed the alternative paths of marriage and children. I’m happy to congratulate them, maybe even celebrate them—but not on company time.

Workplace celebrations of employees who are engaged or about to parent a child may be motivated by the kindest of sentiments, but they are painful to those who only wish they had such experiences. They are also unfair, and do not belong in the workplace. The inappropriateness is compounded when employees are pressured into offering gifts to the newlyweds or parents. The workplace should be about work. Any celebrations should be limited to occasions everyone experiences, such as birthdays, or just to work-related accomplishments. Of course, coworkers who are friends can celebrate whatever they like, on their own time, in venues outside of the workplace.

Financial favoritism is even more troubling. Last year, the CEO of Boxed enjoyed an avalanche of adulatory publicity when he offered to pay for his employees’ weddings. Other employers offer other rewards that have nothing to do with job performance, and that unfairly advantage married people or parents over everyone else. They include, for example, offers to help with the college tuition of the children of employees, to cover the moving expenses of a spouse, and, more commonly, the option to include a spouse on a health care plan at a reduced rate.

I’m all in favor of employer generosity. But beyond bonuses that are tied to work-related accomplishments, such largesse should be equally distributed. Cafeteria plans are one option: all workers are entitled to the same dollar amount in benefits, and they can choose the ones they want.

The rise of single people is a national and international phenomenon. In the US, for example, in 1970, only 28% of adults 18 and older were not married. Now, nearly half (45%) are unmarried. Americans now spend more years of their adult lives not married than married. These trends are showing no signs of reversing. Workplaces need to adapt to a workforce that is increasingly unmarried. Fortunately, workers who are single are contributing more than we ever knew.

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