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Kids With Benefits

photography by Chris Robinson

For Christmas last year, Bruce D. definitely got the short end of a straw.

The fortysomething employee, who works in Toronto’s financial district, ended up having to work through the holidays to cover for his absent colleagues who, unlike him, are married and have children.  

“People with kids come before those of us who don’t where I work,” stated Bruce, who asked that his full name not be used in case even just mentioning this uncomfortable truth would get him in trouble with his employer. 

“The thinking is that if I don’t have a family to go home to, then I have no excuse but to fill in the time for those who do.”

He’s not alone in feeling that he isn’t given the same perks and considerations as colleagues with dependents to support.

New research from York University’s School of Human Resource Management finds that employees who don’t have kids often feel they are less entitled to flextime than colleagues with children.   

While many Canadian companies do have human resource (HR) policies in place that advocate work-life balance, workers with kids still appear to benefit most from those policies. 

“You can work from home a couple days a week, telecommute, share work – but only if you have justification. Yet this same rule doesn’t always apply to non-parents,” says Galina Boiarintseva, a human resource instructor at York who studied work-life balance accommodations for her PhD dissertation. 

Boiarintseva’s study examined work-life balance perceptions and sentiments of dual-career professional couples without children across North America. It is the first of a series geared specifically to HR professionals in Canada and the U.S. Her findings have struck a nerve. 

Since the release of her study in 2018, the former human resource manager increasingly finds herself invited to participate in national television and radio talk-show programs where she fields calls from Canadians without children who are unclear about their workplace rights. 

“The study is unique in that it addresses an issue that has long been overlooked in the workplace, which is surprising given the response to the research,” says Boiarintseva, herself a parent. “It really gives a voice to people without children.”  

Couples interviewed for this study said that because they don’t have children, they often feel obligated to work longer than usual hours, and when asking for telecommuting opportunities or flexible shift scheduling, they feel their requests won’t be taken as seriously as those made by their colleagues with kids. 

“I had one person, an elite marathon runner, who said he had to lie at his workplace, telling his boss that he had to take his niece to the doctor every Thursday to cover up his weekly team marathon practice. He did so because he felt that by not having children of his own, he did not have a ‘parental excuse’ to take time off, and his training needs would not likely be considered legitimate by the employer.” 

HR policies that support families are designed to improve employee retention. Ironically, it appears they will have the opposite effect if they continue to ignore childless workers who feel those policies don’t reflect their wants and needs.

Employees without children are bound to feel resentful, and may look elsewhere for work if they believe they are being discriminated against because they do not have children. 

“An interviewee told me, ‘The reason I joined my organization was because all my friends had been raving about how progressive their work-life benefits [are], but then I discovered it was me who would be paying for that flexibility as it became clear that I was expected to pick up the slack for the parents with children.’ That comment has stuck with me. It sums up a general problem.” 

There is a solution that should satisfy everyone’s needs: treat all employees equally, regardless of their parental status.  

“An effective way of addressing this issue would be to reconsider how we create those work-life balance polices,” Boiarintseva says. “Specifically, it seems prudent to take family status out of the equation to make it fair for everyone.”  ■

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