While pregnant with her second child in 2012, Anna Steffeney wanted to ask the HR representative at the large tech company where she worked about taking some extra months of parental leave. After all, two years earlier, while working for the same company in Germany, both she and her husband were given a full year of paid leave when they had their first child.
“I wanted to afford the same experience to my second son, but I was struggling to navigate my options because they were so different in the U.S.,” Steffeney says. “The HR rep told me one of the offerings they had to help me was mental health services. The answer jarred me.”
When Steffeney asked her colleagues for their insight, many told her she should have hidden her pregnancy as long as possible. “I quickly realized how taboo it was to have a baby in the American workplace,” she says. “In Germany, I was met immediately with a congratulatory response from my manager and a plan for my leave.”
Three years after quitting her job over her own maternity leave, Steffeney is set to provide that supportive, German-style parental leave experience in a uniquely American way. She’s the founder and CEO of LeaveLogic, an early-stage tech startup in Seattle that offers parental leave management software to major corporations. By the end of the year, Steffeney estimates their product will be available to 25,000 employees at two companies through their early-adopter program. They’ll launch a direct-sales effort in 2016.
Most companies explain parental leave policy with a static PDF document written in legalese found on an Intranet site. “This leaves you with more questions than answers,” Steffeney explains. “We replace that with a personalized experience.”
An employee at a company using LeaveLogic opens a dynamic, individualized platform that asks confidential questions like: Are you pregnant or just looking? Are you here for paternity or maternity information? Do you need adoptive or foster policies? Once completed, all of the employee’s leave options are presented. “Our research indicates that our technology is touching the employee an estimated three to five months before they would be comfortable going to HR to get these answers,” Steffeney says.
Getting that early, clear information allows the employee to plan—and not just financially. The platform provides resource articles on career navigation, child care, and prenatal health. Education continues during leave, when an employee gets text reminders to update health insurance or sign up for the office’s lactation room.
The software also addresses that cultural problem: the reason Steffeney’s colleagues encouraged her to hide her pregnancy. When an employee is ready to notify the employer, “just-in-time training” is delivered to a manager, which explains the available resources for a team with a member on leave and the importance of employee retention. “This is where a lot of the American system falls apart,” says Steffeney. “Many companies have a variety of ways to solve the resource burden to accommodate parental leave, but because one manager might only deal with it every three years, they might not know. Then leave is seen in a negative light.”
Companies in highly competitive industries like tech have taken to offering lavish leaves (assuming employees actually take them) as part of their compensation packages. Netflix recently announced some employees can take unlimited leave for a year; Facebook offers 17 weeks with pay and $4,000 in cash, Yahoo gives new moms 16 weeks paid, and so on.
But most U.S. workers have no such luxury. The U.S. is one of only two nations in the developed world that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave—and just 12% of the private U.S. workforce has access to paid leave, according to the Department of Labor. Addressing family leave is something many groups in the U.S. have been working on for years, but usually from a policy perspective.
“And we still need a social policy, a net so women don’t go into poverty when they have a baby,” says Steffeney. But, as she saw from her own corporate motherhood experience, policy does no good if an employee doesn’t take advantage of it due to corporate culture and a lack of information.
“Forty-three percent of highly skilled women leave the workforce or off-ramp for a period of time,” she says, citing a study in Harvard Business Review. “And it’s due to a lack of perceived options in the workplace.”
Every time a company loses an employee, it costs 1.5 to three times the amount of the person’s salary to replace and retrain a replacement, according to the Society of Human Resource Management. “[LeaveLogic is] increasing the likelihood you can retain that talent you’ve invested in. That could save these companies millions of dollars a year.”
Many of the employees Steffeney speaks to are shocked to find out her product didn’t exist already. “Millennials have had a tool like this for all their major life events up to now,” she says. College Board, The Knot, and TurboTax are all online platforms that provide education and planning tools for major life events. “Large employers are looking for ways to address parental leave for this changing workforce,” Steffeney says.
LeaveLogic was invited last year to the White House Summit on Working Families, where President Obama addressed this issue. “He spoke specifically about the current need for a woman to ‘win the boss lottery’ in order to have a successful leave,” Steffeney says. “It doesn’t have to be like that.”