3 tips for building a better parental leave policy

There’s a rapid and public movement afoot to make paternity leave a priority in the workplace.

Mark Zuckerberg recently drew attention to this issue when he announced on Facebook that he’d be taking two months paternity leave after the birth of his first child. Netflix and JP Morgan joined Facebook in announcing their own new and highly flexible paternity policies shortly after. I fully expect momentum to continue as companies consider the benefits of paternity leave and look to implement more equitable policies across the board (just 14% of employers offer any sort of paternity or spousal leave, according to a 2014 study by the Families and Work Institute).

At One Medical, we recently went through this process ourselves, after realizing that we could be doing more for all parents. Our new policy includes 12 weeks of paid leave (80% of salary) both for mothers and fathers, same-sex parents, and birth and non-birth parents.

If you’re thinking about revamping your parental leave policy but are unsure about how to do it or whether it even makes sense, here are a few things you should consider:

1. Trust that the economics will work out. Let’s face it: offering paid time off for parents – moms or dads – can be a daunting proposition. In addition to paying parents’ salaries (partial or otherwise) while they’re out of the office, companies might also need to pay contractors to cover for the work. There may also be lingering questions about whether a parent will return after taking leave.

I would encourage businesses to look past these short-term concerns, because in the long run, research shows that offering paid leave is good for business.

According to a 2011 study by California's Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), 91% of businesses surveyed said that offering paid leave actually had a positive (or neutral) effect on their profitability. Parental leave can also have a positive impact on employee loyalty and retention: 99% of businesses who offer paid leave see a positive or neutral effect on morale, according to the study.

While our primary motivation for expanding this benefit was simply to do the right thing for our employees and their families, we also considered the impact on loyalty and retention. We’re hiring some of the top primary care providers in the country (among other best-in-class talent), so ultimately it makes good financial sense for us to invest in keeping these employees happy rather than having to hire and train people to replace them.

I’ll never forget the emotions in the room the day we announced our expanded policy and how many people approached me to express their gratitude. I spoke with several male providers who were visibly moved by the support they felt from the company.

2. Make sure employees’ work is covered. Many of us struggle to find time for a week’s vacation, let alone plan for an extended leave. Take some of the burden off team members and their colleagues by helping them cover for their time out of the office.

One way to do this is to create a flexible labor pool – through a staffing service or your own network of consultants – that can easily be tapped when folks go on leave. For example, we’ve built up a flex team of national primary care providers who can fill in for team members while they’re on leave.

Covering for team members can also be turned into an opportunity for growth. One of our product managers who recently took parental leave had a teammate co-product manage with him for a few weeks and then cover for him while he was out, giving this person enough experience to transition into a full product manager role when he returned. He also handed off a few of his activities to other teammates who were eager to expand the scope of their roles.

We also made it possible for parents to take their leave intermittently, so parents can more easily coordinate their time off and even extend the period when one parent will be home with the child beyond the first few months.

3. Show support from senior leadership. When people are unsure if their company is really serious about parental leave, they’ll often feel hesitant to take the full amount, for fear of how they will be perceived within the company.

In fact, when the CEPR asked respondents why they didn’t take advantage of paid family leave, 37% attributed their reluctance to a fear that “their employer would be unhappy, that their opportunities for advancement would be affected, or that they might actually be fired.” This fear may be even greater for men, for whom taking time off around the birth of the child has historically been much less common.

This is why it’s so critical for leadership teams to demonstrate support for the policy. For example, you might ask your CEO to be the one to announce and strongly endorse the new policy at a company town hall meeting, and have your senior leaders prepared to discuss it and respond to questions in their team meetings.

It’s not enough for senior leaders to be bought in; team leaders and managers also need to show their support. Make sure they understand why the new policy is being rolled out and encourage their staff to utilize it. Also make it clear that when it comes time for promotional opportunities or salary adjustments, people who take parental leave should not be penalized in any way.

As luck would have it, we were able to show leadership support right from the start: one of our senior executives had his second child the month after we announced our new paternity leave policy, and he took most of his leave right away.

While we’re still in the very early days of our new policy, it’s been tremendously well-received by our team to date. Beyond the tangible results, we know that nurturing families is the right thing to do for our business. In the long run, we’ll have healthier, happier team members and a stronger company overall.

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