By Brian Kreissl
With all the talk lately about the duty to accommodate employees based on family status with respect to so-called “normal” childcare needs, I thought it might make sense to examine the needs of single employees and whether they might be feeling a bit left out. This applies not only with respect to an employer’s obligations under human rights legislation, but also in terms of employee benefits, scheduling, flexible work options and perceived fairness in general.
Most of us are familiar with the obligation not to discriminate based on family or marital status and the duty to accommodate in relation to the prohibited grounds of discrimination. However, it is a two-way street, with employers having obligations not only with respect to employees with families and children, but also to single employees. There are several examples of how this could apply, since it isn’t just employees with families who deserve protection from human rights legislation.
For example, not so long ago it used to be said that employers preferred to hire single women and married men, the stereotype being that married women would take time out to have children or would need time off to take care of a sick child, and that single men lacked drive and maturity since they didn’t have the responsibility of a family to look after. Thankfully, those days are over, but I suspect at least some employers might still be guilty of that type of backwards thinking.
Likewise, it isn’t too hard to imagine situations where an employer might need to accommodate a single employee. For example, a single person might not have someone else who could be at home when a repairperson needs access to her home during the day and may be required to take time off or work from home on that day.
Perceived fairness to single employees
Nevertheless, I’m actually more interested in issues that move beyond human rights and the duty to accommodate, and into the realm of perceived fairness around employee benefits, work assignments, business travel and the overall employment value proposition.
I am extremely lucky to work for an enlightened employer that is able to accommodate my family situation, lack of child-care options and the fact we only have one car. Because of those issues, I sometimes need to come into work a little later or work from home, especially since my wife (who mainly works nights) often doesn’t arrive home from work until about 9:30 am.
While it can be a little difficult dealing with some of our logistical challenges, we usually manage to work around our schedules. However, I could understand how some people without family or children might feel a little envious of my flexibility and some of the “perks” associated with my schedule.
Because of that, I was always keenly aware as a manager that I would be a hypocrite if I always insisted on people being in the office at 8:30 a.m. or didn’t allow them to work from home on an occasional basis. Let’s face it, we all have appointments and errands to run at times, and in some ways single employees can even be at a disadvantage when it comes to those types of things.
It is particularly important not to make assumptions or determine schedules based on employees’ marital status or family obligations. This applies with respect to things like assigning overtime, business travel or schedule and shift changes — particularly in relation to so-called “plum assignments” that could lead to higher visibility within the organization or possible promotions.
Conversely, it isn’t fair to always give such assignments to single employees or assume their needs relating to work-life balance are any less important than those of employees with families. Not everyone wants to work overtime or travel extensively for business, and that includes single people without any child care or elder care obligations.
While care must be taken not to stereotype people, a great deal has been said lately about the increasing importance of work-life balance to younger employees. Just because someone is young, single and highly-educated, an employer can no longer assume that person is necessarily interested in aggressively climbing the corporate ladder.
Single employees sometimes also feel a little envious of the benefits offered to employees with families. Therefore, I would recommend offering flexible benefits plans and having options that would be attractive to employees from all walks of life and at different life stages.