September 28, 2015
This August, Netflix raised the stakes on winning and keeping top employees by offering 52 weeks of PAID parental leave for both mothers and fathers. 52 weeks! Paid! Dads, too!
The nearest competitors to that offer similar benefits, Microsoft and Twitter, offer 20 weeks of paid parental leave for mothers and 12 weeks for fathers. Google comes close with its 18 weeks for mothers and 12 weeks for fathers, but Netflix took everyone by surprise. The amazing thing is that while Microsoft, Facebook (lagging at 16 weeks for mothers) and Google’s profits justify this expense, Netflix barely made it into the black in 2014. Still, Tawni Cranz, Netflix’s chief talent officer explains, “At Netflix, we work hard to foster a ‘freedom and responsibility’ culture that gives our employees context about our business and the freedom to make their own decisions along with the accompanying responsibility.”
There’s that . . . but digging a little deeper reveals that offering this kind of benefit conjures a meaningful financial return, too.
Corporate Motivation: The Return on Investment of Paid Parental Leave
The United States is the only country in the world without a federal law mandating paid parental leave. The best American courts have done is to create the Family and Medical Leave Act, which states that new mothers must have the option of taking three months unpaid leave. And fathers? Nothing. France mandates new fathers get 11 days fully paid time off and an additional six months partially paid time off. Sweden’s new dads get 60 fully paid days off and an additional 14 months partially paid time off.
Silicon Valley may be taking steps to rectify America’s lagging concern with child and parent well-being. Recent moves indicate the big tech companies are in a something of a horse race to offer the best leave packages to employees. Microsoft upped its paid time off for mothers by four weeks only after Netflix came out with this announcement. These high tech companies, citing a struggle to win top engineers, have been competing for the employees by offering on-site food, laundry, gyms and daycare. While all of these amenities are fun, the real meaning lies with the flexibility to balance home and work life. After all, time with the kids can’t really be checked of the to-do list while at work. Employees want companies who create robust policies that allow them decent, quality time with their children. And let’s not forget the New York Times recent expose of a “bruising” work life at Amazon.com: live and breathe the company; family life is a distant second. Tech companies are notorious for working employees into the ground. Having to be connected to superiors and colleagues on evenings and weekends may not meet the typical idea of parental leave.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Silicon Valley recruiter and former Google employee Morgan Missan explained that by the time an employee hits the child-bearing years—the mid-thirties—the company has invested quite a bit in him or her. It’s also the time these talented individuals start hearing the call of entrepreneurship. Missan explains, “It costs so much to replace a senior engineer or another senior employee that a year’s worth of salary is worth it.”
Diversification is another reason high tech firms are upping parental leave offers. Fathers staying at home longer means that valued employees who are also mothers can feel more comfortable coming back to the workforce without paying expensive child-care fees or leaving an infant with outside care. An Adobe human resources executive explains, “At the end of the day, we want to diversify and we think this will contribute to, over time, having a more balanced work force from a gender perspective.”
Impact of Extended Parental Leave on Fathers Who Work in Tech
No matter tech companies’ motivations for extending parental leave, we’re thrilled that the trend is going toward more paid paternity leave. Researchers have proven that the first months’ bonding period is critical for baby, mother AND father. It’s a critical “window,” a time that cannot be recaptured. For fathers who end up divorcing, the ability to show that you’ve taken the paternity leave offered and contributed to the care of the child from his or her birth will go a long way with judges determining custody and child support. Beyond that, these first months where the father learns the baby’s signals and needs begins a pattern of responsive care that persists throughout life.
One threat to these new initiatives involves parents’ concerns of how they will be perceived if they take the extent of parental leave. Research has shown that when a parent returns, a tendency does exist for colleagues and superiors to refrain from putting too much pressure on the new parent. When these habits snowball, the new parent could find himself on the “daddy track,” getting fewer raises and promotions. For parental leave to work, a company’s generosity must be backed up by an atmosphere of acceptance. News of negative comments about an employee on leave will spread, making others reluctant to take advantage. The company can support the leave policy by encouraging managers and executives to take advantage of it. Leadership in this issue is critical.
Another effect the expansion of paternal and maternal leave will have on fathers is the further easing of the provider role. With employers more flexible about maternity leave, women have an easier time keeping their jobs. Men, women and employers could all be coming to the realization that men work on the home front as much as women. Sitcoms and commercials now depict fathers as being engaged and competent caregivers for children and households. This change came about largely due to public outrage delivered via social media over images of fathers as inept and immature caretakers. A division of labor where each gender fulfills a portion of duties of the traditional gender roles seems to be dawning in America to everyone’s benefit.
Parental Leave for Some?
What’s disappointing, however, is that the extended parental leave seems to be focused only on top engineers and executives. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 13% of American workers have access to paid parental leave. Looking closer, it’s a full 22% of those earning the highest wages who enjoy family leave where only 4% of those in blue-collar jobs earning low wages get the same benefit. Even at Netflix, their lauded new 52-week parental leave policy applies only to well-compensated engineers and upper management. Those who pack and ship the DVDs at the service are out of luck. When The New Yorker journalist asked them about the disparity, they only replied that the DVD workers are in another division of the business, a non-answer.
Government policy can change this; they had to do it with healthcare in the 1950s after all. Then, companies didn’t need to offer health insurance to attract employees; workers were plentiful. When too many sick employees ended up negatively impacting both government and commerce, public policy had to step in.
Currently, a debate rages in Congress over whether the government should mandate paid parental leave, as almost all other developed countries do. That there’s even a discussion indicates progress. The winner of the 2016 presidential election will most likely sign the first paid parental leave act into law or veto it in favor of businesses concerned about the bottom line.
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