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 careerfirm 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, 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, 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.”