Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 Leadership stories of 2015. See the full list here.
Paid parental leave has become one of the most talked about issues in 2015. Netflix just revised its already expanded policy to offer between 12-16 weeks off to its hourly workers.
Other tech companies have amended their policies this year, too. Adobe changed its benefits to increase paid leave for its U.S. staff. Spotify followed suit, expanding paid leave to six months to better align with government-mandated measures in its home country of Sweden. Amazon jumped on the benefits bandwagon as well, inviting speculation that it made its leave policy more generous in the wake of bad press about the company's cutthroat culture.
And although paid parental leave is not currently federally mandated in the U.S., California became the first state to pass a gender-neutral paid leave law. In doing so, claims for fathers went up from 19.6% in 2005 to 30% by 2013, according to a study released in November.
But announcements of extended benefits don’t account for the entire picture. As Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, told Fast Company in November, while it’s necessary to have a clear message from the top on paper, some company cultures actively dissuade their employees from taking advantage of the benefits.
At Yahoo, new mothers are eligible to take up to 16 weeks paid time off (dads get eight), yet CEO Marissa Mayer, who gave birth to twins on Thursday, December 10, declared she’ll take "limited time away" because she’s healthy and the pregnancy has been uncomplicated.
For the tech chief it’s also a practical business decision as this is, as she puts it, "a unique time in Yahoo’s transformation" as Silicon Valley’s rumor mill spins with speculation. Yet this personal choice and her previous one in which she took only two weeks off after the birth of her first child has drawn criticism, especially since it wasn’t long after that first birth that she ended Yahoo’s flex time, which is a boon to working parents.
As Gina Crosley-Corcoran wrote at the time for The Broad Side:
While Mayer can’t legally require her FMLA-qualified employees to return to work before their 12-week unpaid maternity leave expires, executive leadership sets the tone for what is considered acceptable in an organization. Mayer’s own post-pregnancy choices made it clear that it was perfectly reasonable to expect a new mother to return to a highly demanding role before her stitches even heal. If the most powerful person in the company doesn’t feel comfortable pausing for a rest after the birth of a child, how are less powerful "Yahooligans" viewed if they choose to take the full 12 weeks they’re entitled to?
On the flip side, Mark Zuckerberg is taking advantage of Facebook’s generous paid leave benefit by taking two of the company’s allotted four months off to be with his new baby.
It’s a bold move, considering that studies show that men don’t take the time off when it’s given in part due to pressure of retaining their responsibilities at work and also because of a lingering cultural stigma that is perpetuated through unwritten workplace traditions. For example, in recent research, some fathers revealed that after having children, trading anecdotes about kids around the watercooler was fine, but talking about achieving work/life balance, not so much. "People don’t want to give away that they are feeling stressed out," one participant said.
Facebook’s paid parental leave benefits are widely touted by the company’s staff. Indeed, employee feedback was so positive, the company landed at #5 on Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work list. Comments included, "Four months and very little pressure to come back to work. I've personally never seen anyone not take the full amount when they had a child."
At Edelman, Mike Schaffer, a vice president of digital corporate, has had two children in the past four years and is now expecting a third.
Schaffer tells Fast Company he worked to develop a leave plan that was about 2-4 weeks, combining parental leave and other paid time off. "With my son, I had a professional commitment that I had to fulfill that interrupted my leave after a week, but then took more time," he explains. "In both instances I eased back with partial days and work-from-home."
Schaffer, whose story is one of the parenting narratives on the It's Working Project platform, says he started conversations with Edelman's HR department and his managers in the fall for a leave plan for when his third child arrives in March. "I have been very fortunate in my career to become a father while working at companies that value and support working parents, from human resources to direct managers," he says.
At other companies, leadership does indeed set the tone, as well as encourage ways for their employees to use the benefits. For example, employees may be "allowed" to take as much time off as they want with unlimited vacation policies, but if no one else in the company is using it, they end up taking no vacations at all.
In sharp contrast to Yahoo’s revoking of flex time, global professional services company Accenture not only extended its paid time off policy for new parents, but they are changing the culture to encourage staff to take the time.
In August, for example, Accenture introduced a new program for employees in the U.S. and Canada that automatically allows primary caregivers of either gender to work locally for the first year after returning from parental leave, rather than travel. "By making the policy deliberately inclusive, employees who often need to travel extensively for their clients do not have to feel uncomfortable asking for it," an Accenture spokesperson said.
Even without extensive leave policies, some companies are working to encourage new fathers to be equal caregivers as they build their career.
Zach Pousman, a 37-year-old digital product designer at the IQ Agency in Atlanta, had just been promoted to director when his daughter was born. "Only 2 weeks of paternity leave were available at my company," he says. "I took the first week entirely off. Then I took the remaining week and split it so that I could take 20 hours per week during weeks two and three."
However, the company stepped up after that to help a few of the parents who created a "nanny share" at work that was like an informal day care. "The agency lent us an unused office and the owner even got us cribs and changing table and donated toys," he says. This may sound similar to Mayer's famous in-office crib after the birth of her first son. Of course, these sorts of arrangements only work when they are offered company-wide, which is why there is a growing call for on-site day care programs.
Ellen Bravo of Family Values @ Work pointed out that there are other ways leadership can ensure benefits will be used rather than feared. Managers need to be trained to implement the policies and create a channel for staff to give anonymous feedback if they aren’t compliant. Those who don’t will be dealt with, "in all the ways that matter: pay and promotion," says Bravo. "Sending that message is a powerful one."