Single people get a raw deal at work. But there are signs of change in mainland China
- Discrimination against singles is often not intentional, but companies often expect them to work for longer or cover holidays for married colleagues
- So well done to Dinglan Experimental Middle School in Hangzhou, with its ‘love leave’ policy
It is so invigorating to see workplace discrimination against single people finally being addressed, at least partially, at one school in eastern China.
Dinglan Experimental Middle School in Hangzhou is offering two half-days of “love leave” per month to single and childless teachers, to boost morale and help relieve work pressure.
Discriminatory practices against single people in the workplace are often not intentional or personal, as it is somehow normal for companies to expect singles to work longer hours or cover holiday shifts for married employees and those with children. In all fairness, singletons will often stand in for married colleagues who want time off, so it seems fair to assume this is the case for all single people.
But Dinglan’s progressive love leave, or what I prefer to call “singles’ leave”, has inadvertently highlighted the subtle but prevalent discrimination faced by unmarried people at work.
Single people seem to have dropped off the human resources radar when it comes to leave benefits. There are maternity and paternity leave allowances in the workplace, and some companies even have wellness and birthday leave. But when it comes to single employees, there is none that celebrates singledom.
Quite some years ago, I heard a senior editor at another newspaper telling a female reporter to take on more late shifts because he believed her being single meant she did not have to take care of a family or children at night. It was, of course, preposterous because single people – just like anybody else – have every right to cultivate and enjoy a full life outside work. This means that they should be allowed the same amount of time off to develop their personal life.
I also heard an absurd excuse from a senior manager before about not giving single employees bigger pay rises because, unlike their married colleagues, they did not have to financially support close family members such as spouses and children.
In fact, single people are more financially vulnerable because they rely on their own income, and sometimes they have to shoulder the burden of caring for their parents or other relatives, both financially and physically.
Meanwhile, some people assume that because someone is single they either have lots of free time after work or can just drop everything at the last minute to pick up the slack of, or fill in for, colleagues who are married or have children.
What they do not realise is that being single is tough in every sense. You do not have someone to share living costs with, a problem exacerbated by Hong Kong’s exorbitant rents. There are also seemingly minor everyday problems to consider, such as daily chores and errands, as it is down to one person to do these jobs.
Very often, single and childless staff are being indirectly penalised and treated unfairly in the workplace because of their single status. With this in mind, it is imperative that Hong Kong employers improve workplace arrangements to accommodate single workers and their needs.
Sometimes when a married employee says they need to take time off to care for their sick spouse or child, an employer is often sympathetic, or at least understanding. But you do not often hear someone single at work say they are taking leave to care for a good friend (or even a pet).
Both requests are similar in nature, but it sounds more legitimate coming from a married person or a parent because they are perceived to have more responsibility. As a result they are given more leeway and their needs are taken far more seriously.
This biased mindset is institutional and it seems acceptable in society.
Most company policies do not have single people in mind. For example, bereavement policies only cover immediate family members. But a single person’s immediate family members can, to them, include close friends or a long-term committed partner to whom they are not married, meaning they lack legal status as a couple.
On top of this, single staff do not enjoy the same treatment in health insurance plans at work like their married colleagues, who can add their spouse and children to the plan. The same goes with staff retirement plans, which only cover spouses.
So it would appear the general perception is: if you are not married, the people in your life, no matter how important they are to you, are simply inconsequential in the eyes of the company because they do not count as family by law.
In this day and age, it should not be about how hard or how long you work; it should be about how smart and how well you work. Therefore, companies should value employees according to their ability and competence, and not judge and penalise them for their life choices and personal status.
An employee opting to leave work early to go on a date or attend a yoga class should not be made to feel that their private life is less important than that of a colleague who is knocking off early to do a pickup from kindergarten.
Whatever their marital status and childless or not, all staff should be treated fairly and inclusively. Singles need their time off to nurture a better work-life balance as much as a working parent who needs more time at home to nurse their sick child. More Hong Kong employers should take a leaf out of Dinglan’s book. As its principal put it, unmarried and childless staff “need time off to enjoy life and experience its beauty”.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post