Categorized | Workplace

Singles Discrimination

Posted on 02 December 2008

Are unmarried workers fighting an uphill battle?

While interviewing for a senior marketing executive job, Bradford Agry encountered a subtle yet common form of discrimination: one that targets unmarried people. In the first five minutes of the interview, a married partner in the firm asked Agry if the ring on his left hand was a wedding band. ‘No,’ Agry replied, ‘I’m single.’ The conversation went downhill from there.

The firm’s executives hinted that, as a single person, Agry might not want to live in the surrounding community. It was a rural, family-oriented town, they said. “One particularly aggressive partner asked how I would feel about attending company events, such as picnics and softball games, as a single person without a family,” says Agry, now a principal with the New York-based career consulting firm CareerTeam Partners.

“The interrogation continued with yet another remark about travel for business: ‘I assume, since you are single, you’re free to do lots of traveling to develop new business.’ I explained that part of any new business development director’s job was prospecting and meeting with clients. But I did not want to be on the road all the time. This remark was met with silence.”

“I just can’t miss those Friends reruns” doesn’t sound too good to the boss.

Suffice to say, he didn’t get the job. “Which, of course, was a blessing,” he says. But that didn’t make the experience OK. While other forms of discrimination dominate headlines–those relating to gender, race, and religion–unmarried people are often victims themselves. They may not get jobs at ‘family-oriented’ companies. Or, they get the job, but are asked to do more work because colleagues with spouses and/or children aren’t expected to work long hours. The married parent, of course, can always say they have to go home and take care of the kids. What can a single person say? “I just can’t miss those Friends reruns” doesn’t sound too good to the boss.

The Loneliest Number
It goes beyond longer hours, of course. Single people actually make less money, experts say, because employers decide that they don’t need as much to support a household. Although statistics on this kind of discrimination are rare, a recent Purdue University study found that unmarried men in general make 14.1 percent less than their married counterparts. “We find a marriage premium,” says study co-author Michelle Arthur, assistant professor of management at Purdue. “That is, married men are rewarded for qualities people think come with marriage, i.e., being breadwinners or being responsible and stable.”

And men aren’t the only victims. In some cases, discrimination surfaces in the form of reduced responsibilities. “The single mother or single woman who works is often looked upon with suspicion,” says John Rapoport, an employment rights attorney and author of The Employee Strikes Back (Wellington Press). “They question whether she can travel when needed or work long hours. Those questions often lead companies to tailor the work assignments that single women with children receive. Those assignments keep the single mom from her rightful place on the promotion, raise, and bonus lists. The hard-working single person may cover for his or her married counterparts only to find that raises, promotions, and bonuses are feeding a married employee’s wife and kids.

“One of my favorite cases involved a single mother who was the company’s highest-rated saleswoman. Every time new accounts came in, the manager would give them to a married male who ‘needed’ the income. Finally, this single mom had had enough. We raised the issue with the company, got a nice severance package in lieu of a lawsuit, and she started with a competitor the next week. She banked the severance, led the competitor in sales, and happily refused an offer six months later to return to her old company for a hefty raise.”

Remedies at the Ready
Joan Williams is director of the Gender, Work, and Family Project and professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law. She thinks it’s a common mistake for single employees to stir up us against them sentiments when addressing this issue. Instead, she suggests convincing married and/or parent co-workers to conquer the problem together; this will make for a better overall workplace environment. “You need to say, We’re all in this together,” Williams argues. “We all need a balanced life. Then you need to talk to the employer as a united group and present this as an attrition/recruitment issue.”

If this scenario doesn’t seem likely, Rapoport suggests quietly documenting patterns of abuse and presenting them in a non-threatening manner. Note if married colleagues constantly get better accounts or projects, even when your work seems just as good. If available, track salary, bonus, and promotion history and see how single employees stack up against married and/or parental counterparts. Approach senior staffers to improve the situation–but only if you’re confident in your position and feel that management will reasonably discuss such concerns. “Don’t go in with guns blazing,” Rapoport says, “but with the facts in hand.”

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11 Comments For This Post

  1. David B. Wright says:

    Asking about marital status in an interview is actually illegal in the U.S., but it still happens and it is a delicate issue. How do you answer if you are asked such a question? Try to give a diplomatic response. The interviewer may not realize that they are asking an illegal question, and if you call them out on it and say that it is not legal to ask that question, they may get defensive and you may not progress further in the hiring process.

    There are lots of types of questions that are illegal for interviewers to ask, including questions dealing with religion, family, memberships in organizations, family heritage, weight, health issues, age, citizenship, sexual orientation, military discharges, arrests and more. For a list of illegal questions and lawful inquiries, see pages 162-166 of my book, or check with the Department of Labor or other sources.

    That being said, some companies do look on marriage as a favorable quality – thinking (rightfully or wrongfully) that it indicates stability, ability to commit, and other characteristics that would make one a “better” employee.

    There have been studies performed to research whether married people get promoted more than single people.

    To your success,

    David B. Wright
    Author, Get A Job! Your Guide to Making Successful Career Moves

  2. Yancey at You can learn basic employee rights says:

    The article raises several good points in dealing with the phenomenon of single or marital discrimination. I believe this form of workplace bias has been around as long as any other forms of discrimination. However, like workplace bullying it is now receiving greater attention because of the increasing level of occurrences. One critical point the article overlooks is the fact that job interviewers are routinely incompetent or ill trained in conducting interviews. Thus, questions like, “how I would feel about attending company events, such as picnics and softball games, as a single person without a family?”

    The single most important yet overwhelmingly overlooked aspect of any career seeker whether married, single or single parent’s job search is this, not knowing their basic employee rights! I have been truly amazed at the level of ignorance concerning the importance of what I call “workplace readiness”. Every job applicant should invest even more time in education and awareness of basic employee rights as they do in interview and resume preparation.

    For example, Darrel Smith who is single has taken the time to learn his basic employee rights, and is asked various illegal interview questions. He realizes this employment would not be beneficial for his personal or professional development. Because of his research, he’s able to read “between the interviewers lines” and sees workplace privacy issues, potential FMLA violations and more by the potential employer. In another example, Jane Smith has only read or taking a seminar on basic interview preparation and resume writing. She is interviewed, not recognizing all the illegal and incompetent questions asked and then accepts employment.

    Days, weeks or months later she finds the workplace is a hotbed of workplace bullying, hostile work environment, harassment, unfair job performance reviews and more aimed right at her! She is in the middle of it and has no clue how to navigate the process of protecting her rights in the workplace. The article makes great points about singles discrimination, but the true uphill battle for job seekers is not learning their basic employee rights BEFORE seeking and accepting employment.

    Yancey Thomas Jr, basic employee rights coach and advocate

  3. Single Angela says:

    This article raises some great points and I’m glad it did. But the issue is more complex. Missing Friends reruns isn’t the only reason a single person doesn’t want to/can’t work late. As a married person you have someone to rely on to split chores and errands. As a single person you have to spend your free time doing everything yourself and cannot split the workload. You do it ALL yourself. And in these times if a single person gets laid off (and they may be the first to be let go), their household income doesn’t just half since they have at least the other person’s salary to soften the blow, their household income goes all the way down to zero. This is a heavy burden for an independent single person to carry. And instead of seeing all the strength and character it takes to live a single life, most employers see the single person as a selfish carefree single swinger without a care in the world.

  4. joe says:

    Single people are usually looked at poorly by not only companies,but couples as well,I enjoy my single life.But yeah the Stereotypes that come with it disgust me.
    All information about being discriminated for being single in the workforce needs to be made public.

  5. Mark says:

    In the UK a leading UK bank (Lloyds TSB) has openly disciminated against employees who are single. Incidents including Bullying or harrasing them into attending functions on there own against there will. Married staff do not have this imposed on them and no excuse for this has been given.
    An branch manager we will call him Andrew Evans sought to impose his will on one member of staff insisting all staff attend an Xmas party knowing this meant they had to unwillingly go on there own and persucting them when they refused. I add they were willing to take a member of the opposite sex to the function.
    A female member of staff we aill her Wendy Hirst on a seperate occassion attempted to bribe a male colleague into going alone to a party even though she was not. She could have offered the freebie to an alternative female when the male member of staff would have readily paid for his meal to accompany her.
    No defense for this has been put forward LTSB are condoneing this and have refused to resolve. Discrimination and injustice towards the single person continue to be rife in the UK.

  6. David says:

    Bullying at work is a bigger issue than many would have us believe and the logically the single person feels it most. Who wants to go home crying to their mother or worse an empty house.
    Its normally easier to pick on them as bullies always attack easy prey.
    As for discrimination at work it comes in many forms. The expectation to work late and longer. Second choice over holidays oh you receive false sympathy or patronising comments if you complain.
    The issue will not go away!

  7. Olivia says:

    It’s worse than that. For companies that negotiate with bargaining units, it’s common for the employer to shell out two or three times the cost of benefit premiums to employees with dependents vs. single employees. In other words, these companies pay $1500/month toward an employee’s family-level coverage when they pay only $500/month for single-party benefit coverage, with no thought given to the inequity, or offer made of compensatory pay to the single employee. The disparity is seen merely as “savings.”

  8. help single mothers says:

    It might be really difficult for single mothers at a young age to cope up with the needs of her child. A lot has to be taken care of in bringing up the child which includes the welfare of the child as well as managing with one’s own education. Moreover, it is really tough to lead a life alone after separating from the spouse.

  9. hemen parekh says:

    Jobseekers are clueless!

    Times Of India (July 20, 2010) reports:

     In Germany, resumes generally include a photograph and information considered taboo for employers in many countries, such as, date of birth, marital status and nationality.

     A 2010 study by the private Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labor showed rampant bias in hiring.

     This prompted the German Anti-Discrimination Agency to sponsor a voluntary program under which company recruiters will process only “Blind” resumes that remove any reference to ethnic background or other personal information irrelevant to job performance.

     Procter and Gamble and L’Oreal who have joined this program say the idea is to show to other recruiters what they were sacrificing with their prejudices.

    No doubt a welcome beginning, but the unemployed around the world just do not want to risk their resumes getting summarily rejected because these contain “insufficient” information!

    As long as job advertisements fail to clearly spell-out what information is “relevant” and what is “taboo”, jobseekers around the world would continue to err on the safe side!

    With regards

    hemen parekh

    Jobs for All = Peace on Earth

  10. Dina says:

    Interesting that in searching for single bias this is one of the only articles that I come across. As a single person in the work place who chooses to stay that way, I have come across far too many situations where more work has been sent my way and less value attributed to my free time than married collegues. The general feeling seems to be that how a single person spends their down time is not nearly as important as how a married person does. I am very comfortable communicating my position but it annoys me to have to defend my holidays and free time. In addition, the money I don’t spend on a family is focused elsewhere and sometimes that seems to be a focus. It all comes down to a choice of lifestyle that should not influence the workplace either way. I wish this issue was more visible.

  11. G. Tovey says:

    Everything you buy which gets cheaper the more you use wastes the world’s resources because it encourages greed. It also discriminates against people who use less. Little users subsidise big users. This applies generally but hits singles particularly. Take food. Single people do not want to buy a lot at once but the supermarkets go out of their way to not cater for them. They bag up fruit into unsuitably large quantities. They offer “Buy one, get one free” which really means “Buy only one: pay more”. The web already covers discrimination in other fields such as tax, insurance, emplyment, travel etc. The list is endless. How can we end this discrimination?

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