The single tax in the workplace


With the cost of living increasing and the proportion of people who are single rising, there has been an increased focus on the “single tax”: the extra cost single people spend because they aren’t in a relationship. A recent study by financial services provider Hargreaves Lansdowne estimated that single people pay, on average, £860 a month more than people living in couples.  

Linked to this, there has been an increasing focus on other disadvantages single people face. Bella DePaulo, a professor of psychology at the University of California, argues that the “single tax” extends to other aspects of the lives of single people. She coined the term “singlism” to refer to the stigmatisation, negative stereotyping and discrimination people who are single face in the workplace and in society at large.

So why are there arguments that single people face disadvantages in the workplace and how can employers address this? 

What is the single tax in the workplace?

The risk of parents facing discrimination – during pregnancy, parental leave or return to work – is well documented. Parents might face backlash when taking parental leave, requesting a flexible work schedule or targeting a new job or promotion. 

However, we are increasingly hearing about a different issue: that single people – often without children – consider they face bias in the workplace. And whilst the Equality Act 2010 says you must not be discriminated against at work because you are married or in a civil partnership, there is no equivalent protection for people who are single.

DePaulo argues that the single tax can manifest itself in a variety of ways:

  • A single person’s non-work life being devalued compared to that of a married person: DePaulo notes that managers might be understanding towards married, working parents who have to leave work at a specific time to pick up the kids from school or take time off when they can’t arrange childcare. However, they may not view the hobbies, relationships and responsibilities of a single person as legitimate reasons to do the same. She argues this may also place a greater expectation on single people to work awkward shifts or during holiday periods. 
  • Higher workload expectations: Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University, interviewed hundreds of single people in Europe and America as part of his research. He discovered that “there was widespread perception that singles became the workhorses in corporate offices” and noted that he “met countless workers who complained that their managers viewed them as always available for late night and weekend assignments, because they didn't have children or spouses”. 
  • Unequal distribution of pay and benefits: Eric Klinenberg notes in his research that “in a few cases, [he] met women who said that they had been denied raises that they deserved, because their managers believed that they didn't need the extra money as much as colleagues with children”.  DePaulo also argues that workplace benefits are often skewed towards married employees which can result in significant differences in the total compensation between married and single employees doing the same work. 
  • The expectation that single people can travel more or relocate: The Tribunal case Sithirapathy v PSI CRO UK Ltd highlighted this issue. The claimant, a UK-based lawyer, declined to relocate to her company’s Swiss head office due to personal reasons. In response, the judge found that her manager said: “What personal reasons? You are not married, you don’t have children and you do not have a boyfriend" and her manager then continued by “telling the claimant an anecdote about the Swiss office’s ‘tolerance’ of a lesbian member of staff”. Whilst the Tribunal ultimately concluded that the claimant was not subjected to discrimination, harassment or victimisation, a different Tribunal may well have reached a different decision. 
  • Unconscious biases: DePaulo argues that single people are generally held in lower esteem than their married counterparts. One of DePaulo’s experiments involved creating biographical sketches of people who were identical — except that half were single, while half were married. Participants considered the single individuals to be less socially mature, less well adjusted, and more self-centred than their married counterparts.  
What can employers do?

So how can employers proactively address singlism? We provide a few suggestions below:

1) Updating your policies so that they are more “single-friendly”

This may include:

  • Making clear that flexible working schemes and job-share are available to all, regardless of family status. 
  • Specifying that work assignments should be given with no regard to family or marital status, using only job-relevant criteria, such as past performance. 
  • Ensuring that family-friendly work benefits (such as on-site daycare and private health insurance for spouses and children) are balanced with neutral or “single-friendly” work benefits (such as gym subsidies and education and training opportunities). Organisations might consider giving employees at the same level an equal number of credits which can be applied towards the benefits that best meet their individual needs. 
  • Ensuring policies cater for individuals to take emergency leave to care for and attend to the matters of their parents / siblings / friends in the same way as spouses. A more general policy of allowing all employees to request time off or away for personal matters - without having to qualify their requests - may also be considered.

2) Creating a culture where single people’s non-work lives are considered as valid and valuable as those of married people

In her book Lean In, Meta’s former Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg highlights the example of a single woman who expressed the view that going to a party should be considered just as valid a reason to leave work on time as a kids’ soccer game, in particular as she wanted to meet new people in order to eventually have kids of her own. Sandberg agreed with this and advises managers to “make sure single employees know that they, too, have every right to a full life”.  

Creating this inclusive culture might involve discussions with employees, emphasising the importance of respecting personal commitments equally and not making assumptions about the value of relationships outside the traditional nuclear family. Encouraging courageous conversations – where employees discuss their lives outside of work – should also promote this understanding. 

3) Consider incorporating singlism into DE&I training

Managers should be made aware of the risk of singlism in the workplace and training should address any implicit bias that child-related reasons for being unavailable are more valid.

Training may also touch on a number of other aspects described above, including: (i) ensuring work assignments are given without regard to family or marital status and using only job-relevant criteria, such as past performance; (ii) ensuring extra hours, weekend work and business travel are not assigned disproportionately to single employees; and (iii) unconscious bias training.

4) Using data to analyse the impact of marital status on career opportunities and advancement 

With employers taking an increasingly data-driven approach to diversity, equity and inclusion, organisations might consider using data to analyse the impact of being single on salary, career opportunities and advancement, particularly as the research shows that married individuals earn more than single individuals

Concluding thoughts

The experiences of single people in the workplace are likely to come more into focus as an increasing proportion of the workforce identify as single. Organisations should therefore consider taking steps now to ensure single employees feel seen, heard and included.  



4) DePaulo, B. M., & Morris, W. L. (2006). The Unrecognized Stereotyping and Discrimination Against Singles. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 251–254. 
5) APA. Sandberg, S. (2015). Lean in. W H Allen.