Treating Employees Fairly

Don't let employees without families feel neglected.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the November 2005 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

When any of Steve Sarowitz's 100 employees wants a day or an afternoon off due to illness, family matters, vacation or any other reason, they can dip into their personal bank of paid time off, no questions asked. "They can basically use PTO for anything they want," says the 39-year-old founder of Ameripay Payroll Ltd., a $10 million payroll services company in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

At a growing number of companies like Ameripay, PTO replaces the conventional approach that uses combinations of sick leave and vacation. Employers like PTO as a solution to sick-day abuse, but it's also a way of offering family-friendly benefits without leaving out workers who don't have spouses or children at home.

That's an important issue, according to Elinor Burkett, author of The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless. "What all employers have to care about is keeping employees," Burkett notes. "That's the reason for these policies in the first place."

Yet many, if not most, employees are left out of family-oriented benefits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 63 percent of workers do not have children under age 18 living at home, while about 43 percent are divorced, separated or have never been married.

"If you're only going to be concerned with the happiness and stability of the minority of employees, you're going to make the rest of your work force unhappy," says Burkett. "The issue is to find a way to meet the life needs of all your employees without breaking the bank."

Family-oriented policies can backfire on employers in a couple of ways. One is that employers who deem that married employees can work flexible schedules but single ones can't are laying themselves open to charges of discrimination and possible legal action. The other is that unmarried and childless workers will get tired of being asked to work longer shifts, come in on holidays and otherwise cover for employees who have family obligations. This can result in lower morale, a fall-off in productivity and higher turnover.

Nobody knows how often turnover and other problems are caused by backlash to family-oriented benefit plans. However, given the size of the work force effectively left out of such plans--86 million workers without children under 18 and nearly 57 million unmarried workers--the potential is significant.

Large companies have addressed this issue by offering cafeteria-style plans allowing workers to pick from a selection of benefits to tailor a package that suits their needs. However, Burkett says, smaller companies haven't embraced cafeteria plans because of higher costs. Luckily, PTO plans are generally less costly than cafeteria plans or conventional sick-leave and vacation arrangements. You can request a free report on PTO programs from Aon Consulting.

Entrepreneurs may not even have to go that far, Burkett says, if they stay alert to the needs of unmarried and childless workers. If a single employee has been filling in a lot for married workers, for instance, the employer could offer an extra couple of days off. "Make them feel you care about it and you recognize it," she says.

Sarowitz says the size of his company allows him to deal with requests for special accommodations, such as being able to work from home, on a case-by-case basis. "We try to be equal," he says, "because we have employees who have families, and employees who do not."

Mark Hendricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.


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