Workers Without Kids Deserve Perks Too

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- At a time when they're still cutting corners financially, many small businesses make up for paltry paychecks with benefits that help employees balance work and family obligations. Often that means helping employees schedule their jobs around parental responsibilities. While that matters a lot, businesses need to take care of childless employees, too.

"In a small company, you're in a stage where you don't have policies -- you have individual deals," says Fred Foulkes, director of the Human Resources Policy Institute at Boston University, which studies HR trends among a large group of member companies, including Proctor & Gamble ( PG), Best Buy ( BBY) and Genzyme ( GENZ). "But there's inequity when one person has to leave early for a soccer game and someone else doesn't get to do that. People tend to make certain assumptions about single people. They think, 'they've got the time, they can handle the overtime,' etc. But it's not true. They've got a life, too."

Employees would most like to change salary and benefits, followed by work-life balance, according to an August 2009 survey of 1,311 American workers by Workplace Options, a work-life benefits consulting group in Raleigh, N.C. And while only 25% of the workers in that survey were unmarried, 28% of respondents felt their company's work-life benefits weren't equitable to single and married co-workers, and 25% felt their workplaces had a different set of expectations for single versus married employees.

To that end, it's more important than ever that when it comes to respecting a work-life balance, employers maintain equitability in their flexibility. Here are a few ways to do that:

Institute a paid time-off policy: Many employers offer 10 paid holidays, two or three weeks of vacation, and a set amount of sick days and personal days each year. In a paid-time-off system, all that time is lumped into a single bank of hours. Workers use that time however they need, without feeling the need to justify the time to the boss or to each other. That way, nobody resents the parents who need to stay home with sick kids for a couple of days, and childless employees who never get sick can reward themselves with vacation days.

If telecommuting is an option, make it optional to everyone: Sure, it may be easier to justify working from home with an explanation like, "I have to take my son to the dentist at lunchtime" than with an explanation like, "I have to take my parakeet to the psychic at lunchtime." But fair is fair. Employers should make it clear that their telecommuting policies apply to all.

Ditto, flex time: In a company with a strict 8-to-5 policy, a boss might be more lenient with an employee who arrives at 9:30 a.m. because he was up all night with a crying baby than one who arrives late because he was up all night crying alone. To maintain fairness, employers can institute flex time -- working a set number of hours, but not necessarily the same hours. Such a system benefits both the parent who arrives at 6:30 a.m. in order to be home when the kids get home, and the childless employee who does the same because he is the sole provider for an ailing parent. (According to WPO, one in four employees is caring for an older or ailing adult in some regard.)

Perks for all: When business is booming, companies may be able to offer discounted child care and other perks that benefit parents. But they need to make sure there are perks for childless employees, too, such as discounted tuition for night classes. "It takes an understanding boss to recognize, 'I have to be equitable here,' " Foulkes says.

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.

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