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Second Shift

What You Can Do If Your Company Doesn't Have A Maternity Leave Policy

What may seem like a huge hurdle could actually be an opportunity to change your company's culture for all the parents who come after you.

[Photo: Flickr user Abi Porter]

If you’re working in a small company or organization, there’s a fair chance they don’t officially have anything on the books about maternity leave. If this is the case for you, you have a great opportunity—not only to set yourself up, but also to ensure that every woman who comes after you can bond with her new baby without being thrown into financial turmoil.

The two corporate policies I point to most often are those of Google and Vodafone. Google’s family-friendly approach is often credited to Susan Wojcicki, a mother of five who was Google’s sixteenth employee and is now CEO of YouTube. Wojcicki wrote in the Wall Street Journal that, when Google increased their maternity package from 12 to 18 weeks, they saw a 50% increase in retention. And Vodafone made news when they announced a global policy of 16 weeks of paid leave, followed by six months of 30-hour weeks—all at full salary.

Again, this isn’t just about asking for something for yourself. This is helping to set up your company for success by establishing a policy that will help them recruit and retain top talent, while also ensuring that the women in your company are afforded maternity leave. (There’s a reason I’m beating this point home: Research has shown that when women are negotiating on behalf of someone else, they do so more effectively.) And this isn’t just about women, so talk about "parental leave," not maternity leave. Plus, if you’re talking to a male supervisor, he may be more empathetic if he’s hearing language that feels inclusive to him (even if only unconsciously).

Some other basic principles of negotiation apply here as well:

Frame everything in terms of why it’s good for business. Companies that offer paid family leave aren’t just doing right by their employees; they’re helping their bottom line by reducing costly employee turnover. Here you could cite Susan Wojcicki’s Google stat (noted above) about increased retention. They’re also increasing their profile when it comes to recruiting new talent; for instance, since big law firms actively compete with each other to hire top graduates, they almost universally have generous parental-leave packages.

Anchor the conversation by putting your recommendation on the table first, and propose more than you think is fair. If your goal is 12 weeks of paid leave, explain why 16 weeks is optimal for both employees and employers. (Because babies are just starting to establish rhythms at 12 weeks, allowing parents to be at home with a new baby until 16 weeks gives them time to find some stability in their routines and sleep patterns. A parent returning 16 weeks post-birth will be better rested, more confident about parenting, and more capable of being apart from her baby for eight or more hours a day. This translates to a more effective, focused, and dedicated worker.)

Remember that a negotiation isn’t a zero-sum game. Sometimes there are things on the table that one party values greatly (like flexibility to work from home one or two days a week, or the ability to spread part of your paid leave over time) that come at virtually no cost to the other party.

Prior to this conversation, you’ll want to research your company’s short-term disability policy (if it has one), as well as your state’s rules about family leave, so you’ll have a clear understanding of what the out-of-pocket cost to your employer will be.

Realistically, securing a 12-week paid leave from a small company is no small feat. Your boss is doing the math, thinking about how he or she can’t possibly afford to pay you for work you aren’t doing (while possibly also needing to hire someone else to fill in). The reality, though, is that a 12-week paid maternity leave is the exact same in dollar figures as a 25% retention bonus, which companies readily pay when they are invested in an employee.

And that’s what paid parental leave is: both an investment in employees and an investment in a company’s future. When huge multinational companies (like Google and Vodafone) looked at the data, they concluded that a generous maternity leave package was worth the cost. Those companies’ CEOs are accountable to shareholders, so any decisions they’re making are informed by analysis of return on investment. If they value the ROI, your smaller employer might too.


What Netflix's Amazing New Unlimited Parental Leave Policy Really Means:

Excerpted from Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood by Allyson Downey. Published by Seal Press, members of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2016

Allyson Downey is the founder of weeSpring, called "Yelp for baby products" by InStyle and CNBC.

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