HR Magazine - July 2000: The Baby Blues

By Andrea C. Poe Jul 1, 2000

Beware of implementing family-friendly policies that leave childless workers feeling left out.

Rita, a childless 30-something graphic artist in New York, believes she is being cheated by today’s family-friendly workplace. She has repeatedly stayed late when her co-workers skipped out to pick up their kids at day care or left to attend their children’s soccer games.

After working one too many holidays—and seeing colleagues waltz out for a Christmas dinner or July 4th picnic with their children—she’d had enough. She left her full-time job and now does contract work, where work/family policies have less effect on her. “Today, companies aren’t family friendly, they’re family focused—to the point that people like me, who don’t have children, are completely excluded from the conversation,” she says.

Rita isn’t the only one who feels this way. A growing number of workers without children are dissatisfied, maintains Elinor Burkett, author of The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats The Childless (Free Press, 2000). The resentment is fueled by the perception that the majority of the workforce, those without young children, must cover for the minority, those with young children.

“Companies forget how many childless people there are in America,” says Burkett. She cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports that 60 percent of the workforce doesn’t have a child under the age of 18 in the household.

What’s the Gripe?

The complaint from disgruntled childless workers goes something like this: About a decade ago, a small but vocal minority of working parents convinced employers to help them balance their work and family lives, say Burkett and others.

The problem is that some childless workers feel left out of the equation. They believe that many of the gains made in flexible work arrangements and paid and unpaid leave never reached the majority of workers, those without young children.

What percentage of childless individuals feel alienated by employers’ family-friendly policies? It’s difficult to say, but it’s clear that some are bitter.

“The child-burdened work less and are paid the same, or more, and we’re tired of it,” says Jerry Steinberg, founder of the Vancouver, British Columbia-based No Kidding!, an association for the child-free with more than 40 chapters in North America, totaling between 4,500 and 6,000 members.

Are all child-free workers as angry as Steinberg? Maybe. It depends on whom you ask.

The Conference Board’s Work-Family Roundtable survey of 300 work/family professionals from 78 companies that “have shown a commitment to work/family issues” found that 75 percent of respondents believe concerns over backlash from childless employees are exaggerated. Of course, the survey didn’t specifically target workers without children. Even if it did, Burkett maintains that the scope of the problem is difficult to assess because many childless workers are seething quietly in the shadows. If she’s right, childless workers may not be airing their gripes directly to HR professionals, which means HR may not know that a problem exists.

One danger is that childless employees will air their frustrations in front of other employees—and that is exactly what is happening, according to a recent poll from USA Weekend. The poll found that four in 10 workers have heard co-workers complain about parent perks.

“People haven’t been angry for that long,” says Burkett. “There’s a lag time before everyone hears about it. But they will.”

Although resentment may be brewing, some suggest it may be misplaced—that the gains made by parents aren’t as plentiful as they may appear. For example, only 37 percent of U.S. companies offer paid parental leave, according to a recent study by Buck Consulting, a New York-based benefits consulting firm. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2000 Benefits Survey found that, aside from what is covered by short-term disability, just 12 percent of respondents report offering paid maternity leave and 7 percent offer paid paternity leave. Furthermore, less than 1 percent said they are considering such benefits in the future.

The SHRM survey also found only 6 percent of employers subsidize the cost of child care, 3 percent offer on-site day care and 3 percent offer day care subsidies.

“People with children still need more balance and more flexibility in the workplace,” maintains Sue Dennis, president and CEO of SanDen Consulting Corp. in East Setauket, New York.

Problem Perks

So, if some workers are feeling cheated, just what are their grievances? There are four key areas that bother childless workers most, according to people interviewed for this story:

Extra Benefits

While their paychecks may look the same as their counterparts with children, many childless employees claim they’re paid less once you consider benefits.

Take health benefits. True, parents have to foot some of the bill when they want coverage for their children. However, employers pick up a disproportionate amount of the cost, childless workers say. According to the Employee Benefits Research Institute in Washington, D.C., employers pay more than twice as much in insurance for employees with kids as they do for childless employees.

Or, look at child care subsidies. Although only 8 percent of working women have children under the age of six, 72 percent of companies offer some type of child care benefits program, according to Hewitt Associates in Lincolnshire, Ill. Childless workers, who note the expense of such programs, say it’s unfair because they don’t receive an equivalent benefit.

One remedy is to offer cash back to employees without children, Burkett says. “Give them some kind of rebate. It doesn’t have to be the full value of the benefit given to parents, but give them something as an acknowledgement.”

Another option is to add more benefits that appeal to all employees. “Convenience services like dry cleaning on premises and gourmet take-out dinners get a lot of utilization by everyone, including people without children,” notes Jon Van Cleve, work/life consultant at Hewitt Associates.

One more solution is to offer a cafeteria style benefits plan, where employees can pick and choose from a variety of options. “That can provide flexibility and lets people choose what they need,” says Deborah Parkinson, research associate at The Conference Board in New York. The downside: Such a plan may be cumbersome to administer, warn some experts.

Alternate Work Arrangements

Another complaint among childless employees is about their lack of access to flextime and other alternate work arrangements. Although many companies have policies on the books stating that alternate work arrangements are for everyone, childless workers say that, in practice, such options as flextime, compressed workweeks and telecommuting are for parents only. The childless need not apply.

The fact is most people who use flextime and compressed work weeks are parents. According to a study by the William Olsten Center for Workforce Strategies in Melville, New York, parents are twice as likely as nonparents to use flexible work arrangements “to a great extent.” As for telecommuting, again parents far out-use the benefit. The Conference Board found that 93 percent of those who use the benefit are parents.

“There’s only so much flextime to go around so once the parents have taken it, there isn’t anything left,” says Steinberg.

Companies may want to encourage childless workers to take advantage of alternate work arrangements so that there is not such a great divide. HR should be careful not to give preferential treatment to workers with children when approving alternative work arrangements. “It’s dangerous when HR sets up a two-class system because you needlessly pit one group against another,” notes Mary Young, an independent researcher on workplace issues and trends based in Medford, Mass.

One way to make all employees feel welcome to the benefit is to institute a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, whereby requests for flexible schedules are not dependent upon personal criteria. At Baxter Healthcare in Deerfield, Ill., employees are not required to explain why they’re requesting a flexible schedule. “We don’t focus on the reason. We just look at whether it’s possible for us to accommodate the request,” says Alice Campbell, director of work/life at the company.

Third shifts, holidays, sick days and other ugliness

Many child-free workers claim they’re left to pick up the slack when their colleagues can’t work certain days or hours because of their children. Holidays are an especially thorny topic.

Tim, a married nurse without children in St. Louis, recalls many a holiday when co-workers with children got time off—and he was stuck working. “I have a wife I want to spend time with, but somehow that’s not as valid as kids,” he laments.

It’s a common complaint among childless employees who feel torn between their own needs and helping a colleague in a bind. “No one wants to be mean. Of course the childless will help, which means they’re the ones who sacrifice,” Burkett says.

“And that’s exactly what should happen,” argues Robert Drago, professor of labor studies at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Much the way your taxes go to public schools whether or not you have a child in the system, his view is that to a certain extent it’s everyone’s responsibility to bring up baby.

Most childless workers agree. The Conference Board study found that 63 percent of childless workers willingly pitch in. “We found that people want to help out and do what they can,” says Parkinson, author of the study.

The issue, according to Burkett and others, is not that childless workers don’t want to work longer hours, but that they should be paid for it. “You’re asking us to do more, and we’re willing to do that, but we deserve recognition for it.”

Adds Steinberg, “Companies need to compensate people who do the extra stuff and pitch in.”

If exempt childless employees within your organization fill in for parents, they should be rewarded for their effort. Nonexempt employees will be paid for their overtime, but exempt employees also should be compensated in some way.

As for holidays, HR can alleviate some of the burden from childless workers by rotating schedules so that everyone, regardless of parental status, has a shot at holiday time off. “You can do it based on equity, how much time people have put into a company, or based on equality, say through a raffle,” suggests Young.

Personal Time

Childless workers argue that just because they don’t choose to have children doesn’t mean they don’t deserve extended leave with a guaranteed job when they return. They say they can think of an endless number of ways they would use options such as sabbatical time, ranging from volunteer work to travel to summer stock theater. Yet time off for personal development is rare. Indeed, the SHRM survey found that 17 percent of respondents offer unpaid sabbaticals, and only 4 percent offer paid sabbaticals. “If you’re not a parent and want leave time, you have to go through such scrutiny it’s not even worth it,” Rita says.

The same holds true for personal days, childless workers say. They claim that employers are lenient when it comes to letting a parent stay home with a sick child, but aren’t understanding when the child-free need a day off to take care of personal business.

“People can call in for days off [without negative reactions] when their kids get sick. I have five dogs who are like children to me. But if one of my dogs got sick and I called in, it’d be frowned upon,” Tim notes.

One way HR can change this is to offer personal floating days or general leaves of absence that aren’t tied to specific criteria. “Companies should offer time off for all employees, whether it’s for time with their child or hiking the Himalayas,” without repercussions, spoken or unspoken, maintains Dana Friedman, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based senior consultant for Bright Horizons. “There should be less emphasis on face time and more emphasis on results. If an employee can produce, it shouldn’t matter why they want the time off.”

Some companies are already making leave time and floating personal days available to all employees. “In this labor market, most companies are vying for a spot on one of the ‘best places to work’ lists,” Cleve says. “Employers are becoming more proactive about offering benefits to everyone.”

BlueCross BlueShield of Central New York is one such company. “Every employee is entitled to personal time off,” says Kathleen Moran, SPHR, director of human resources for the company. “Employees don’t have to tell us why they need it. They can have the time if they need to resolve a personal issue. It’s driven by employees’ needs not criteria set by the company.”

Similarly Eastman Kodak, touted as a model employer by Burkett and other child-free employee advocates, offers a leave program called Unique Personal Opportunity, which allows employees an unpaid leave of absence of up to one year to pursue whatever they would like, including maternity and paternity leave.

“Employees can take it for a wide variety of reasons, not just for family-related reasons,” explains Mary Ann Detmer, the Rochester-based director of HR for the company.

Addressing the Issue

HR has the unenviable task of trying to balance out everyone’s needs and keep an eye on the bottom line. Challenging, but the experts say it can be done. First, remember words do matter. If your program is still labeled work/family instead of work/life, change it. “Work/family is really an unfortunate term. I recommend everyone stop using it because it’s limiting,” says Young.

“The trend is very much away from work/family and towards work/life,” agrees Friedman. Her research found that, among those companies that have programs, 26 percent call them work/life while only 12 percent call them work/family.

The best way to please all employees is to take the pulse of the workforce and find out what your employees want. BlueCross BlueShield of Central New York conducted a survey in 1998 and again in March that sought employee input on what the company was doing right and wrong as well as what it could do better, including on its work/life programs. “We learned what issues concerned employees most, which helped us understand how we could improve our management practices to address them,” Moran explains.

Similarly, Baxter Healthcare did a work/life study that polled its employees through questionnaires and focus groups. “After compiling all the data, we tried to systematically integrate the result into all our function areas,” Campbell says. The outcome is that work/life initiatives at the company are now a key component of all manager reviews, equal with traditional elements like finances, productivity and staffing.

When doing a focus group, Burkett cautions HR against putting childless workers in the same room with colleagues with kids. “If you want people to be honest, call in the more aggressive people in the organization and give them permission to really open up,” she recommends.

After you have gathered data, the next step is to clearly outline all policies and programs so there’s no doubt about who gets what and why. Vague rules only perpetuate the problem. “Too often competition sets in and people start spending their time keeping track of what the others are getting because the rules are so ambiguous they don’t know where they stand,” Young says.

Once your work/life initiatives have been humming for a while, do a reality check. Just because you think things are equitable doesn’t mean everyone else does. Solicit feedback on an ongoing basis, and encourage managers to do the same, the experts say.

Ultimately, you ignore childless workers at your own peril. Not only are they the majority of the workforce, but they will become an even bigger presence in the future.

“The most common type of household after 2005 will be comprised of single persons and married couples without children,” according to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Census Population Division’s report.

This means it’s only going to become more important for HR to ensure that the needs of employees without children aren’t overshadowed by those of working parents.

That doesn’t mean all things given to all workers must be absolutely equal. Even Burkett concedes, “Anyone looking for absolute parity is being unrealistic. It’s just too expensive.”

What it does mean is making an effort to reach out to the whole of the workforce so no one group feels it’s being taken for granted. “What it comes down to is that the workplace needs to show tolerance and respect people’s personal choices,” Tim says.

Andrea C. Poe is a freelance writer based in Easton, Md., who specializes in human resource and management issues.

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