Parental leave is a tricky issue for small businesses and early-stage startups. Entrepreneurs love babies as much as anyone (and are just as understanding of the stresses of new parenthood), but they're also more likely that corporate bosses to lack the money and manpower that makes losing a key employee for weeks or months anything less than terrifying.

Still, some manage to make generous leave work. Take LA-based startup ZipRecruiter for example. Originally, a lifestyle business for its four co-founders, the company now has more than 300 employees. Throughout this growth, it's commitment to helping out any employee with a new baby in their life -- be they a biological or adoptive parent of either gender or their partners -- has never wavered (though it has evolved).

Doing right by new parents

"It was very personal for me," CEO and co-founder Ian Siegel told Inc.com. A father of two, he was working as a senior employee when his first child was born and got only two weeks of (grudging) paternity leave to spend with the new addition to his family. When his second child arrived, he was an entrepreneur and could spend a much longer at home. "I came to fully appreciate the bond difference with my first child versus my second child by dint of just being there," he explains.

So when ZipRecruiter first started hiring employees, he and his co-founders took a simple but generous approach to time off for parents. "We had no specific vacation or maternity or paternity policy. We just said, take whatever time you need," Siegel says.

That was fine when the firm only employed a handful of people, but about a year and a half ago the head of HR came to Siegel and explained that it was past time they nail down something more formal. Siegel sent her off to find some hard data on best practices in the internet industry in L.A. He was shocked by what she brought back.

"Less than 15 percent of the companies in this area are offering any kind of paternity leave. And less than half are offering paid maternity leave. We looked at each other, and I was like, that's just not us," Siegel says. In spite of the data they decided to offer 12 weeks of paid leave for all parents -- dads and partners included -- and actively encourage employees to take that time. The company also offers plenty of flexibility for young parents once they're back at work.

Since putting the policy in place, there have been ten pregnancies among employees, who have in general been taking full advantage of the company's generous policies. And while the company obviously doesn't recruit specifically on their parental leave policies given the personal nature of applicants' family situations, Siegel believes that ZipRecruiter's overall commitment to work-life balance, of which this policy is a part, is a huge help when it comes to winning talent for the company--particularly senior talent.

"The more senior someone is the more likely it is that someone will have a family, so we want to make sure we're an ideal destination for those individuals," Siegel notes.

Are they setting a trend?

Siegel's company is obviously an outlier among similar firms when it comes to its policy towards parents, and Siegel can understand that its approach isn't for every business. ZipRecruiter, which helps firms post job ads across multiple job boards, works with tens of thousands of small business owners as they are the company's primary customers, "so I know every business is different," Siegel says. "It's not trivial when someone takes three months off."

But while he doesn't believe there's any cookie cutter recipe when it comes to new parents, he does insist that "every business can achieve optimal work-life balance for their employees within their means."

"There's no question that the maternity or paternity policies of this country, in my opinion, are backwards. Allowing parents to spend time with their newborn child is such a unique life event that we should treasure that and support that, but I don't know if every business could sustain this," he adds.

Still, while business owners are facing plenty of more immediately pressing struggles and will need to find their own unique approaches to parental leave, Siegel is convinced that the competition for talent will drive more and more companies to think hard about these sort of employee lifestyle issues.

700,000 jobs go through the ZipRecruiter platform each month, Siegel notes, which offers him a unique position to spot trends in how companies recruit. "What I can tell you is that one of the big focuses right now is what's called 'workplace marketing.' The new hotness, if you will, is advertising what it's like to work at the business. Companies are really waking up to highlighting things like 'we're right next to a park' and 'there's lots of places to eat nearby.'"

If a great taco joint in the neighborhood is nice plus, a generous parental leave policy is certainly a killer differentiator, and "businesses are fighting for differentiation," according to Siegel. "This is going to lead to a transformation in how companies think about recruiting talent. We can already see this. The commonness with which someone highlights that they offer benefits in their job ad is up dramatically this year over last year."

Siegel may be not be wildly optimistic that tons of small businesses will be offering generous leave policies anytime soon, but for companies looking to hire tough-to-come-by talent in competitive markets, the days where they can safely ignore the issue of parental leave may soon be behind them.

Do you think the tide is turning when it comes to companies offering more help to new parents?

Published on: Dec 1, 2015