Should employers be concerned or sensitive to this issue?
I was recently asked a question about childlessness and childless staff, and whether employers needed to know or do anything further about the rights and responsibilities to those staff who do not have children. We hear so much about the rights of working families, but what about those who do not have children?
Credit must be given to this employer, firstly that one of their staff felt comfortable enough to speak about it, and secondly that it is being pro-active in considering what they can do to support that person and any childless staff.
Almost always, conversations such as this, about uncomfortable, rarely discussed subjects are pushed into public and workplace consciousness, not by academics or specialists, but by people who have been personally affected by the issues and find themselves reluctant champions of causes they still have difficulty admitting to. However, supporting your childless staff and colleagues in the workplace is very much a part of Equality and Diversity, but is a duty that is often overlooked.
Being childless raises issues of fairness and reasonableness in the workplace, particularly about flexibility and workload, and there remain very different perceptions of how childlessness in the workplace should be dealt with, between parents and those who don’t have children. The reasons for the childlessness may also raise issues such as gender; sexual orientation; disability or religion which are all protected characteristics and protected by discrimination.
Nevertheless, childlessness is a concept that is still baffling to some people, as in a world where there is war, disease, starvation, murder and divisiveness, being childless could be considered to be pretty low on the scale.
In this context, we are talking about being childless not by choice.
This may be for a number of different reasons, but it is different to being child-free, which, like becoming a parent, is generally a life choice.
This situation affects around one in five females, significant numbers of males, trans and non-binary people, as well as those close to the individuals affected.
The complex and hidden feelings those who are childless might feel have rarely been acknowledged and will of course vary depending on the fundamental reasons why they are childless.
Here are a few ways to support fellow staff who are childless, but not by choice.
Employers must be aware of what they or their staff are (or should be) discussing and consider where they are, when talking about for example a pregnancy; childcare; or relating anecdotes about children.
Remember that conversations can be inadvertently overheard by those not actually in the conversation.
Although not all childless people will mind over hearing or engaging in these conversations, there are markers in the year that may be particularly difficult for the involuntary childless including Christmas, Mother’s/Father’s Day, or when the kids going back to school at the beginning of the academic year.
Employers and employees should be aware of how discussing these things could unintentionally upset others. Although censoring what staff talk about is likely to be excessive, it is sensible to ensure employees know what should not be discussed.
Of course, many people are happy to remove themselves from a conversation, but this may not be possible if they are in for example an open plan office or trying to have their lunch in a staff kitchen; and the question is should they have to?
Employers should encourage staff to talk to each other and to provide time and space where their staff can have conversations. Of course this should not take away from working time, (unless you want to be very generous), but it might include having a staff room, holding social events for all staff; mentoring or buddy arrangements; team building events across departments or even just meetings between departments to show who they are and what they do.
Of course, having conversations with staff means asking questions. Common sense and reasonable judgment should be exercised when asking questions particular ones such as “when are you going to have children”. One of the most distressing issues is how to respond to such a question, and the almost comically inappropriate responses childlessness can provoke in other people that I have heard including “Everything happens for a reason,” or even offering to carry a baby.
Many parents take for granted the many networking opportunities available to them, which are not available to childless staff such as PTA meetings or standing on the touch line at a sporting event. Parents connect, often professionally, and so employers should consider ways to ensure childless staff have similar opportunities to network, or to attend events of their own interest which are important to them.
Employers should also consider having either a nominated wellbeing officer in the business, who is available to speak to anyone about any issues. Employers should also encourage an open-door policy for its staff, to build an open; aware; understanding and empathetic environment for people to work in.
Staff notice areas; desk and workspace
Most readers will have experience of a colleague announcing a pregnancy at work and getting a delivery of balloons to work to celebrate; or the office covered in photos of their children winning some award or the child’s drawings.
Of course, there is nothing wrong in celebrating these things. However, businesses should have a clear policy on what can or can’t be displayed on staff notice boards or your desks; and they should communicate this clearly and enforce it consistently to their staff, to make sure people show an awareness that their own conduct can have an impact on others whether they intend to or not.
Businesses should make their staff aware of when and how they allow photos, cards or balloons to be displayed in the workplace, or when announcements about a pregnancy or birth are made or shared.
Work can often be a sanctuary away from being reminded about being childless, but an inappropriately placed notice board of images, may remind childless people every time they pass.
Many business owners argue that offering equal latitude to all employees in terms of work schedules is easier said than done and there remains a difference in perspective between people who are parents and people who aren’t, for whatever reason.
However, it is a misconception that flexible working is only available for staff with childcare or other caring responsibilities.
The statutory right to request Flexible Working applies to all employees (subject to eligibility), whether they have children or not. In addition, there is no statutory requirement for an employee to provide a reason when making such a request for flexible working.
That does not mean, however, that the reason for the request is irrelevant. For example, where the employee makes a request to accommodate caring responsibilities, that request may well engage the principles of indirect sex discrimination.
The issue also remains that many business owners would not offer the same flexibility for someone saying ‘oh sorry I am off kayaking’ compared to someone doing a pick-up from nursery. Despite a boom in flexible working, many childless (and childfree) people say they’re still picking up the slack from colleagues with families.
Employers should ensure all staff know that they recognise that a good work-life balance is important for everybody and that flexible working is available to all to request. Employers should remember that a valuable employee is someone who has a high quality of life as a whole, no matter what choices they’ve made. So, there might be a need for a wider perspective.
The same goes for public bank holidays and holiday requests. A common complaint is that parents get preferential treatment when it comes to getting their preferred holiday dates. A “first request, first response” policy is good to avoid disputes, as is a clear and consistent process for requesting and authorising holiday leave. An open holiday diary can also show transparency in how annual leave is managed.
Each business will be different but as always, the key to avoiding problems and disputes is good communication, consistency and flexibility. Employers should make sure all employees know that they have every right to a full personal life, whether with children or not.
The future… Equality and diversity
Employers and HR departments are going to start having to factor in the wants and needs of childless staff. Unless employers adapt and start to embrace diversity; equality and the need for flexibility in an ever-changing work force dynamic, their future recruitment and retention of talent will suffer.
Employers should also remember that current and prospective staff will, and do, research the business they work for are potentially joining. It is easy to profile the business online, and to find out its culture and policies. Employees can find a company that doesn’t ask, or doesn’t care, why they need time off; where they can still get that promotion, not by working harder or longer, but by working smarter.
Photo by Sandrachile on Unsplash