The overlapping demands of fatherhood and the workplace have been a challenge for working dads for a long time. With more single and custodial dads than ever, it’s particularly important for organizations to consider the unique needs of this group. Having a workplace that supports parents isn’t just about offering a bit of leave – it’s about building a broader culture that acknowledges the specific needs of working parents, addresses cultural stereotypes about fatherhood, and takes the time to understand what these employees truly need.
Who Are Custodial Dads?
Custodial dads are fathers who are either the joint or sole custodial parent of their child(ren). According to recent census data, there are approximately 2.4 million households in the U.S. alone that are led by a single father (in contrast, there are around 7.5 million households headed by a single mother).
Like any other single parent, custodial dads face the dual challenges of being a primary caregiver and a primary breadwinner, balancing childcare, and work. For dads who have joint custody, rather than sole custody, they may not have to deal with this balance every single day, but they face different challenges. For instance, parents with joint custody agreements often find themselves with much more limited career opportunities, since they may have to limit themselves to a specific geographic area to comply with court orders.
While fathers in all industries face these issues to some degree, it’s not an equal experience. Dads with blue-collar jobs, for example, may have less flexibility in both scheduling and finances, compounding the challenges they’re dealing with.
Single Dads in the Workplace
The very concept of fatherhood has a long and complicated history of intersecting (or not) with men’s roles in the workplace. In today’s world, even though attitudes and cultures around fatherhood are evolving, single dads face a number of challenges that their partnered colleagues do not.
In a survey conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management, fathers were asked to agree or disagree with several statements about being a working dad. The responses revealed major discrepancies between single and partnered dads:
- Seventy-nine percent of single dads say they work longer hours as a working dad, compared with 48% of coupled dads
- Fifty-four percent feel less productive because they are working fathers (compared to 29% of partnered dads)
- Fifty-five percent say they miss out on networking (compared to 39%)
- Fifty-five percent say coworkers think they don’t pull their weight (compared to 30%)
- Sixty percent say they miss out on promotions (compared to 34%)
On the plus side, however, single dads in the survey did report slightly higher rates of satisfaction with their lives overall, especially outside of the workplace. Eighty-two percent of single fathers in the same survey say that they have a good work/life balance (compared to 66% of partnered fathers), and 84% say that they are happy with life outside work (compared to 78%).
The emotional and mental side of things is just one component, however. Workplace biases about parenthood persist, with differing results depending on gender and partnership or single status. A 2018 study from the University of Arizona found that married dads often reap the benefits of a fatherhood “premium” – that is, better pay and perception in the workplace. Single dads, on the other hand, don’t reap these same benefits, possibly due to perceptions that they’re more focused on their families than their jobs, or at least that they have more divided attention than their married counterparts.
Intriguingly, the same study found that working mothers faced the inverse: penalties for married working mothers that somewhat disappear for single mothers. The implications – that being a “breadwinner” somehow “elevates” single moms but that being a caregiver somehow “lowers” single dads – speaks to broader cultural concerns over perceptions of parenthood and gender roles both in the family and in the workplace.
How Companies Can Support Custodial Dads
Support for single parents can take various forms, and it’s critical that companies listen to feedback from their employees about what they need and want. In some cases, there is a significant gap between the assumptions that companies may make and the real, day-to-day needs of working parents.
For instance, one survey found that 87 percent of employees with children under the age of 18 said that company reimbursements for expenses related to child care or education services would be the most helpful benefit – but only 8 percent of companies offer such benefits. While leave is often the most talked-about measurement of a company’s commitment to supporting working parents, other forms of support are just as important (or even more so) when it comes to actually building a culture where working parents can feel supported – especially single parents.
Part of this commitment must include developing a culture that supports fathers who take advantage of the benefits they are offered. In many companies, there is still a bit of a stigma around fathers who take family leave or other family-related benefits, so it’s important for leaders to lead by example and to “walk the walk” by ensuring that fathers are not penalized for using these benefits. Developing a culture where men take more new-parent leave and ask for flextime would also create positive ripple effects across gender lines by reducing the disparity in who uses such benefits.
What does support for custodial fathers in the workplace look like in practice? Companies looking to attract and support single working parents need to consider a range of actions.
Some of those actions are about broader workplace culture: improving inclusivity in actions and language; encouraging the setting of boundaries and the value of rest; acknowledging that all workers have responsibilities outside of work, rather than basing workplace culture around an outmoded work parent/home parent dichotomy. Some is about leadership and whose voices are heard, such as making an effort to hire and promote single parents. Some is about concrete policies – ideally, after considering what employees actually say they need – such as flexible and creative work setups; supportive leave policies; and offering support and assistance for childcare, whether that’s reimbursement programs, education about options, or even on-site services in some cases.
Finally, companies with a real commitment to the parents in their midst also ought to look at the bigger picture and consider supporting public policy that supports single parents. Every company can make a difference in its own way – and many companies working towards similar goals can lead to a better workplace culture for everyone.
About the Author
Christopher Rios is a Founding Member of Blue Rock Search. He has over twenty-five years in Hospitality and Executive Search and leads the Blue Rock CX practice. His desire and passion to deliver an exceptional and engaging Client and Candidate Experience has led him to his current role as Chief Experience Officer. He has over fifteen years of hospitality experience as an executive chef and has been recruiting executive and senior-level talent in Customer Experience, HR, and Hospitality for over a decade.
In his capacity as CXO, Chris oversees the retained CX Executive Search practice, which specializes in the identification, assessment, recruitment, and onboarding of executive-level CX leaders and their teams inclusive of Leaders across all Experience Disciplines (Patient, Digital, User, Employee, etc.), Customer Success, Care & Support, Contact/Call Centers, Professional and Managed Services, VOC/VOE as well as Insights and Analytics.
 Agovino, Theresa. “Custodial Dads Are a Workplace Anomaly, but Their Challenges Are Familiar.” Society for Human Resource Management, 9 October 2021, https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/all-things-work/pages/single-dads-face-familiar-workplace-challenges.aspx.
 Agovino, ibid.
 Blue, Alexis. “Workplace Bias Differs for Single Versus Married Parents.” University of Arizona, 22 Aug. 2018, https://news.arizona.edu/story/workplace-bias-differs-single-versus-married-parents.
 Agovino, ibid.