Inside General Mills’ leave policy overhaul: ‘It’s a lot of work’

ORLANDO — When General Mills decided to make significant changes to its leave policies last year, it was just the beginning of a long process for the employer.

The food company faced a series of challenges in strategizing and implementing the new policies, as well as communicating the changes to employees, managers and vendors, the company’s HR and benefits leaders said Monday during the WorldatWork Total Rewards Conference, highlighting the ongoing work that goes into a benefits transformation.

“We’ve spent the bulk of our time in the implementation phase, and we’ve been in stabilization mode ever since,” said Sharon DeTaeye, senior manager of human resources specialist operations at General Mills. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s really about doing the right thing for our employees.”

In January, General Mills more than tripled the length of its paid maternity and parental leave policies, introduced paid caregiver leave, and boosted its bereavement and short-term disability benefits. Birth mothers now get 18 to 20 weeks of paid leave, up from six weeks, and partners and adoptive parents get 12 weeks, up from just two previously.

The new benefits, which apply to more than 11,000 non-union U.S. employees, also include a caregiver leave benefit, offering employees caring for immediate family members with a serious health condition a two-week paid leave; and up to four weeks of paid time off following the death of a family member. General Mills announced the changes last August.

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General Mills Inc. breakfast cereal boxes are arranged for a photograph in Tiskilwa, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, March 18, 2015. General Mills reported net sales of $4.35 billion during the third quarter and reaffirmed the company's outlook for 2015 during an earnings report today. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

So far, 85 employees have used the new caregiving benefit, and 68 employees have used the enhanced parental benefits, DeTaeye announced during the presentation. Breaking that down further, 62 employees are taking all 12 weeks offered and 45 of these employees are male.

“We are very happy to see some using all 12 weeks,” said Lisa Peterson, benefits manager at General Mills, who also spoke at the session. “It’s something we will continue to watch over time and see how it progresses.”

The new benefits were the result of employee feedback and surveys indicating that workers wanted more time off to help them balance work and their personal lives. Though Peterson said the leave benefits have been a good change for the Cheerios maker, she admitted it has required a lot of work to make it work — and warned other employers that the effort that is still ongoing.

Though a number of employers — including IBM, Walmart and Hewlett Packard Enterprise — have beefed up paid parental leave or rolled out caregiver leave benefits in recent years, administrative changes often stop many others from doing so.

Peterson said the slew of changes from General Mills required deep analysis, hundreds of policy changes, training and enhanced employee communications to make the rollout a success.

“When we were implementing it, we had to all sit down and discuss hundreds of policy decisions,” she said. For example, the company asked themselves hundreds of questions including: Does the 12 weeks of paid parental bonding leave need to be taken consecutively or can it broken up into chunks (they eventually decided to only allow it only consequently to avoid inconsistencies), and what benefits are impacted when an employee is out on a leave of absence? (The latter question led General Mills to not allow employees on leave to accrue vacation time, for example.)

To help get its employees to use the new benefits, the company also had to help alleviate some of their concerns.

“Some of the challenges we had were they didn’t understand the leave process steps and requirements, and there were too many steps to take,” Peterson said. “And there were varying expectations about communications during leaves.”

In addition to a variety of communications methods, including email, video and mail announcements, General Mills spent months updating the company employee website with resources and answers to questions about the programs, and also developed a time off interactive guide. It also started to hold monthly parental leave planning meetings to explain everything employees needed to know, which has been a successful resource, Peterson said.

Another problem that had to be addressed after the rollout of the leave benefits was a “general lack of empathy” from managers when their employees requested time off, which was often the result of managers’ concerns over staffing when an employee is absent.

“That was something we worked on with storytelling,” DeTaeye said. “We would tell them the challenges of some of these employees, or how much taking time off would mean for the employees.” It also has set up training with managers on how to handle staffing issues and other concerns when employees are on leave for an extended amount of time. They also train managers on how to communicate with employees who are taking the leave.

Although General Mills is five months into their new benefits, DeTaeye said the company is still hard at work in making the transition be as seamless as possible, and acknowledged it will “adjust and adapt” the policies as needed.

“It’s an ongoing process,” she said. “But we’re encouraged by the results we have so far.”

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