Let’s say your paychecks don’t come from one of the 50 Best Places to Work for New Dads, and the pending birth of your kid is going to be a whole lot more stressful thanks to a lousy (or nonexistent) paternity leave. You could do what every guy before you has likely done: Take whatever vacation you’ve banked and hope everyone is healthy and happy by the time you have to go back. Or, you could sue the bastards.
That’s what Josh Levs, fatherhood columnist for CNN and resident dad on the HLN show Raising America, did. With a third child on the way, Levs was shocked to discover that CNN’s paternity leave was bass-ackwards: 10 weeks paid for any parent except the biological father, who only got two. The subsequent lawsuit, which he details in his new book All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—and How We Can Fix It Together, made national headlines and resulted in Time Warner (CNN’s parent) revamping their entire paid parental leave policy.
If you want to play hardball, Levs has the game plan and the results to back it up. He got himself (and all the other biological dads) six weeks of paid leave, and he even got biological moms another two paid weeks. But even more impressive is what he didn’t get: fired. So, before you call a lawyer, read this.
On paper, Time Warner’s leave policy—before Levs called bullshit on it—seemed absurd. “Under their policy, anyone could get 10 paid weeks to stay at home and take care of a new baby, except a man who used his own male biology to impregnate a mom,” he says. “If we put my baby up for adoption and some other guy adopted her, he would get 10 paid weeks. If we’d used a sperm donor, I would get 10 paid weeks. If we’d used a surrogate, I would get 10 paid weeks. But because I did it the old-fashioned way with my wife, I’m literally the only kind of parent who couldn’t get the 10 paid weeks.”
But what’s absurd on paper is actually pretty standard in corporate America. If your company’s leave policy sucks, you might have the same just cause that Levs did.
CNN’s policy seemed so ridiculous to Levs that he initially thought it was a mistake, so he brought it to the attention of HR. Upon realizing it was, in fact, that ridiculous, he pled a case for change—all the way to the CEO—to no avail.
Levs’ book is all about the vicious cycle of our “work-first culture,” in which the decision-makers he was lobbying were the least likely to empathize with him, precisely because they’re most likely to have sacrificed work-life balance to get where they are. They may be legitimately unaware that their employees increasingly expect a different model from their employers, which is why he advocates trying to help them see the light before bringing in the lawyers.
“Look into [other companies] to see their policies; bring them to your bosses or your HR department to find out the protocol where you are. And say to them, ‘Hey, these competitors are doing this, this, and this, and it’s working out well for them.’ Have those conversations,” he says.
Step two is about hoping for the best, but step three is about preparing for the worst. In any lawsuit, the devil is in the details, and no detail is too small. Save every email, text, and IM; keep a log of your phone calls, and make notes summarizing who said what. The moment you’re trying to convince your company to change its policies, you should be keeping a record of your efforts. And not on your work computer, genius.
“Technically, the legal move was called ‘filing a complaint with the EEOC,'” says Levs, referring to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This federal agency handles workplace discrimination due to your race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. “Most [employees] don’t know that you can file with the EEOC. Even a lot of lawyers don’t know this.” If your lawyer doesn’t know about the EEOC, find a new lawyer.
This is the thing that’s most likely to get you fired, even though it’s technically illegal for your company to fire you for filing the complaint. If your lawyer doesn’t have a game plan for what to do if you get fired, find a new lawyer.
After Levs decided to pull the trigger, he announced the lawsuit on Tumblr. “It was like I had unleashed the floodgates of love. All the support that night–it was wild.” His case was eventually picked up by ABC, The New York Times, Yahoo, Gawker, and more, because the story was irresistible: By calling them out publicly, Levs put Time Warner in the impossible position of having to defend a clearly hypocritical policy. The lawsuit is still ongoing, but for all intents and purposes, Levs won when Time Warner changed the policy, which can be at least partially attributed to the outcry following his announcement.
There are plenty of instances when you don’t want a legal battle fought in the media, but when you’re just a guy who wants to be there for his wife and new kid and you’re up against a faceless corporation? Take those odds.
This article originally appeared on Fatherly and is reprinted with permission.