Parental leave policies in corporate America have grown and evolved substantially over the last decade. With the new values and priorities of an increasingly millennial workforce, this is an area where large employers are making an effort to impress. Leading companies such as Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Google, and Etsy are broadening the umbrella of who can be covered under these policies, how long leave can be, and which other side benefits accompany it.
In tech, the situation is luxurious: Parental leave is now ranging from about 16 weeks to a full year of paid time off. Many employers offer adoption and surrogacy benefits for their employees, and paternity leave is becoming increasingly common. Yahoo and Twitter offer deluxe lactation rooms with hospital-level equipment. Google and Facebook even offer a helpful stipend of “baby cash” for each child an employee has. In a Business Insider article, a male manager who took paternity leave mentioned, “in my perspective, I think it’s one of the best benefits [my company] offers.”
The Business Case
The majority of people and employers understand the value of taking time for bonding as a new parent, but it turns out there is an economic case to be had as well.
At Netflix, Chief Talent Officer Tawni Cranz says, “Experience shows people perform better at work when they’re not worrying about home.” With Netflix’s generous parental leave policy, “employees [are] supported during the changes in their lives and return to work more focused and dedicated.” Netflix’s experience seems to carry over to other firms as well: In a 2014 study of businesses in California who were affected by that state’s increased parental leave laws, 90% reported positive or no change overall in areas of productivity and morale.
In addition to performance improvements from increasing parental leave benefits, Google experienced significant improvements on retention when it increased paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks back in 2007. The rate at which new mothers left was curbed by a remarkable 50%. Turnover is a major cost to large firms, so improvements to parental leave benefits can go a long way with employees who want to be parents. Not only that, but talented women in their prime career years may make their choice in employer around these policies.
The Issue of “Primary” Caregivers
Many corporate parental leave policies are written for a “Primary Caregiver,” which traditionally meant a female employee who had a baby. However, in practice this is not always true. Parents might adopt and the male partner might wish to be the primary caregiver and take leave, for example. Or both partners in a same-sex couple might want to take time to support a surrogate and bond with their baby. In theory this primary/secondary language is safe and neutral, but companies are beginning to move away from it.
Etsy is one place that decided to ditch the “primary” label entirely. “It was playing out in a gendered way,” Juliet Gorman, Etsy’s director of culture and engagement, said in an interview. “Male employees read the policy and thought, ‘I must only be eligible for secondary.’ The fact is, the idea of a primary caregiver is a foreign concept in Millennial households where both partners work, and men are more vocal about being involved parents.
There can also be friction or push back against men declaring themselves the primary caregiver. They might not be believed by their employer, explains Josh Levs, author of All In, a book that looks at how fathers are treated in the workplace. Levs believes “Primary” and “Secondary” labels are essentially coded language which reinforces gender norms and stereotypes. A policy which uses these labels contributes to existing issues such as women being treated differently if they decide to have a child, and men being expected to forgo valuable bonding time which makes them better parents.
Etsy’s new policy states that regardless of gender, birthing means, or country of residence, all employees are eligible for 26 weeks of fully paid leave that can be taken over the two years following the birth or adoption of a child. Gorman said, “While we recognize the unique toll of giving birth, we believe that all members of a family benefit from generous, inclusive leave.” It seems to be working well for them, as 48 employees (with equal gender representation) have taken leave so far, and 35% have gone on to receive a promotion soon after.
Parental Leave Outside of Tech
While things might be going well for parents in the tech crowd, the general state of parental leave in the US is not so rosy—we simply lack the legal framework to fully support it. There is no mandatory paid parental leave guaranteed in this country. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) stipulates that workers receive up to 12 weeks of leave per year. The catch is that this time off isn’t required to be paid, and the employee must have been with an employer for over a year.
As one can imagine, this plays out in tight circumstances for the majority of workers. In a 2015 Employer Benefits Survey, SHRM reported that just 21% of employers offered some type of paid maternity leave in 2015, and 17% offered paid paternity and/or adoption leave. Though this may seem less than optimal, this does represent a substantial increase from 2014, when just 12% of employers offered paid parental leave.
Though US policymakers are slow to build legislation around parental leave, employers at least seem to be increasingly filling the gaps on their own. It may in fact be helpful that large tech firms are setting the stage and being vocal about big changes to their policies. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which offers a year of parental leave, posted a statement on LinkedIn which mentions, “This will enable parents to participate more fully in their children’s lives, while also allowing them the flexibility and financial certainty to meet the needs of their growing families.”
Ramping Up Parental Leave
Not every employer needs to offer lavish and elaborate Silicon-Valley-style parental leave policies, but making small changes is a great way to help build an inclusive environment for parents and let them do their best work. If a block of paid leave sounds daunting, there are other places to begin.
If there is no policy at all in place at an organization except FMLA, organizations can help employees by offering short-term disability. From there, some amount of paid maternity leave is an ideal next option. If employers want to continue expanding their parental leave they can then increase the number of paid/unpaid weeks, implement paternity leave, edit existing policies to be more inclusive, and so on. There are many free or low-cost resources available to aid employers in developing their parental leave policy.
There are also inexpensive supplemental programs to enrich an existing leave policy. For example, Twitter hosts parent-to-be/parent round tables on a quarterly basis to support their workers. Employees can get information about parental leave, swap stories, and learn how to balance family and work. Another idea from Amazon is to offer flex time for a set period of weeks when employees first return to work to help them adjust.
Whatever the it is, it’s key for leaders to embody the policy and speak transparently about doing so. The best practice is for high level employees to go ahead and take their allowed leave, enjoy time with their child, and share their experience with colleagues. In this way, a norm can develop around parental leave which encourages workers to have a full, well-balanced life with their family.