Earlier this month, Facebook's founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced that he would be taking paternity leave following the birth of his second child, using two of the four months Facebook policy provides. While Zuckerberg isn't the only high-profile executive to opt for family time, his decision still has prompted company leaders around the country and world to have a second look at the quality of their leave policies.

What's motivating companies to follow Zuckerberg's example

Ed Mitzen, founder of Fingerpaint, says that he turns to leave to support his workers not only financially but also emotionally, and that he's seen an improved policy affect productivity. "Leading up to their paid leave," he says, "employees are more engaged and hardworking when compared to staff who had to take leave before we increased benefits. After they return to work, there is a greater sense of loyalty to the company."

But Shazi Visram, founder and CEO of Happy Family, and Sabrina Peterson, co-founder and CEO of Pure Growth Organic, believe that leave is a matter of compassion and inclusivity, too. "Business is people," Peterson asserts, "and the best businesses propagate humanity in practice, products, and service. My goal isn't to attract more Millennials or better talent; it's the human thing to do."

A sobering statistical portrait

Statistically, the state of parental leave in the United States is pretty bleak:

  • Pew Research Center reveals that, out of 41 developed nations, America is the only country that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in 2016, more than 100 million employers still weren't offering paid family leave.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor asserts that 88 percent of private sector U.S. workers have no paid leave access.
  • A Deloitte survey of 1,000 employed adults across the U.S. found more than one-third of men and women saying that taking parental leave would jeopardize their careers. Fifty-seven percent of men (54 percent overall) feel others would perceive them as less committed to their jobs if they took parental leave. Fewer than half feel their company fosters an environment in which men are comfortable taking parental leave.
  • Women working year round make just 71 cents for every dollar paid to fathers, but visible fathers who take paternity leave face a wage gap too.

Mitzen says some individuals feel disenchanted about leave, believing they won't use it and that it doesn't benefit them. Peterson says that some leaders resent those who take leave even if the company offers it, and that leaders worry workers will quit when the leave is over. She also says that the leave issue hasn't progressed because it's still seen as a gender or women's issue, even though the definition of family has changed.

In this context, looking at those 41 developed nations again, the two months Zuckerberg is taking matches the smallest amount of paid leave required. So while people have been quick to laud Zuckerberg's decision, perhaps we shouldn't get too excited at the fact our "improvements" still don't move us past the bottom rung. Mitzen asserts, however, that what other countries offer won't impact your business unless you're competing for international talent, and that the bigger picture of what the U.S. can offer workers in terms of benefits is still attractive and will improve.

As the above statistics show, Americans still are leery that taking parental leave is a safe move, and employers don't want to get burned. But it's not all a matter of perception and psychology.

"I think the rising cost of health care in the United States has severely impacted firms' ability to offer additional benefits," Mitzen says. "We are a relatively small firm with 165 employees, and yet I pay more than $1.3 million each year in health care costs. If those costs became more manageable, it would leave additional funds that could be allocated toward other benefits."

"I think the reticence comes from a lack of willingness for shareholders to pay for leave," Visram adds. "But they need the full information to make informed decisions, as paid leave actually decreases attrition of top talent, which is more expensive to replace and retain."

Unspoken demand is there

Whatever the negative perceptions of taking leave might be in the United States, workers do want the time off. Mitzen, for example, says that his employees were moved to tears when he improved his company's policy. To make a policy work, Mitzen, Visram, and Peterson recommend that you:

  • Clearly communicate your expectations
  • Offer competitive support like onsite daycare, subsidized childcare programs, and flexible work programs
  • Audit leave policies of competitors and try to ensure yours has parity
  • Talk to staff to see what they'd value most in a program (e.g., duration, percent of salary paid)
  • Consult finance and HR leads to figure out what you can afford, weigh financial risks, and ensure compliance with labor laws

Visram admits a shift won't happen overnight, but she's confident that the U.S. will catch up eventually. And the best way to speed that change along? Like Zuckerberg: Lead by example.

It starts with you.

Published on: Aug 31, 2017