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Do Childless Employees Get the Shaft at Work?

Aaron Guerrero

The difference between which employees receive red carpet-like treatment at a company can boil down to who has youngsters at home.

Flexible work hours, telecommuting and cost-covered child care are all ways employers can accommodate those with children. But the desires of the childless, like leaving early for a yoga class, may regularly be denied. Blinded by stereotypes or a lack of awareness, bosses may repeatedly ask these employees to pick up the slack for their counterparts in a number of ways, including longer shifts, working weekends, making the brunt of business trips and sacrificing a preferred vacation week.

While frustrated, employees without children may stay silent out of fear of appearing unsympathetic. "You don't want to look like the person who doesn't support kids," says Cali Williams Yost, CEO and founder of Flex + Strategy Group, a firm that advises companies on workplace flexibility. "But on the other hand, you may also have something really important to you and that deserves a fair hearing as well."

[Read: Why Children Are Getting More Expensive.]

Here are some tips for the childless on how to bring attention to their work-life preferences and gain equal treatment in the office.

Call for a chat. Routinely working late to cover for colleagues who leave early to attend their children's sports events or pick up their toddlers from day care, you feel less sharp with each passing workday. To resolve the issue, schedule an appointment with your boss. "The most important thing is for the employee to sit down and talk to the boss about where they're coming from," says Wendy Casper, associate professor of management at the University of Texas-Arlington.

During the meeting, specify your frustrations and the limitations of your flexibility. "You really need to be clear about what your needs are, and where you're willing to be accommodating and where you're not," she says.

Have a friendly, not harsh, tone. Your boss may not even be aware that he or she is discriminating against you. Don't approach the meeting as a chance for score-settling against a vendetta-holding boss. Instead, have a respectful dialogue and avoid a heated back-and-forth. "Communicate in a way that the supervisor is really receptive to. If [you] go in being angry or upset, [you're] going to alienate the supervisor," Casper says.

But if you tell your boss you're asking for help and would like to figure out a way to resolve the issue, he or she could have a good solution, Casper says.

Compromise and switch off. Voice your willingness to work on certain holidays and during vacation periods that colleagues with children are requesting off. Demonstrate your flexibility by not taking a my-way-or-the-highway approach. But also secure circumstances in which your preferences are put first.

"Have a system where everybody gets their first choice of something. If you cover Thanksgiving, you're not expected to cover Christmas. Or you get first choice of your vacation time this summer and next summer somebody else does," says Bella DePaulo, author of "Singlism: What it Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It." Be equally reciprocal when hashing out longer shifts and working weekends, she adds.

Your preferences are just as important. Comparing your vacation requests (a week's worth of sporting events) with your colleague's (a graduation trip with his or her child) may seem insulting in certain instances. Then again, you may need to use that week off to care for a sick relative. Whatever the reason, you should never have to justify the rationale for your time off.

"You should not have to make the case for why you want some of the holidays off too or why you want to be able to pick certain days for your summer vacation," DePaulo says.

[Read: Are Women Lousy Salary Negotiators?]

Ask for a transfer or leave the company. If you're stuck with an uncompromising boss and inflexible co-workers, you may need to shop around for another job, either in a new department or with a different company. "If it's become clear to you that it's almost a case of discrimination ... that's not the place where you want to keep working," Casper says.

How Can Companies Address the Issue?

By airing their grievances, childless employees can spur change. But it's incumbent upon the organization, and those leading it, to even out the work-life playing field between employees with and without kids. Here's how employers can approach the process.

1. Learn what employees do off-site. As a manager, it's vital to know the intersection point between an employee's work responsibilities and outside activities. The needs of a single marathon runner are quite different from a soccer dad, Casper notes. As the time approaches for him or her to make arrangements for an after-work activity, managers should "be sensitive to what they might need the last few days before [doing it]," she says.

2. Present perks in an inclusive way. A company may use different means (literature, videos, posters) to break down its flexibility and benefits package. Regardless of the method, it's symbolically important that the materials are inclusive. "How you package, communicate and present your flexibility tools and policies and skills to your workplace must be purposefully applicable to everybody," Yost says.

[See: 10 Questions to Help You Earn More Money.]

3. Find alternative benefits. Some employers may pay for or offer discounted child care. A nice perk for some, but others are left with an empty bag. If an organization finds a common need among childless employees, it should provide a benefit that addresses it. While researching a consulting firm several years ago, Casper found that childless employees who spent a significant time on the road had trouble finding someone to care for their dogs. Although the firm didn't pay for the costs, it did provide and organize a dog-care service.

4. Give equal weight to all non-work commitments. Regardless the activity, bosses must view all requests as equal. "The most important part is for the supervisor not to judge how valuable the employee's non-work commitments are," Casper says.

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