About this series: Behind Closed Doors explores the often demanding and yet vital tasks performed by HR departments. The series will focus on case studies that show how HR pros can deliver professional, positive results when called on to have sensitive conversations with employees.
Offering a parental leave policy is only the first step toward creating a more inclusive workplace, but many places stop there, thinking it is enough.
While intentions may be good, a parental leave program that does little to support employees that use the benefit — or is couched in a culture that looks down on those who take leave — is going to backfire.
What actions should companies avoid? What can an employer of any size do to make parental leave programs work? We spoke to Subha Barry, general manager of Working Mother Media, to suss out the steps any organization can take to give parents a real break — and to make sure they come back.
Key 1: If it's a benefit, treat it like one.
For starters, the company culture should make it plainly clear that not only does the benefit exist, but people are encouraged to take it. Employees need to feel comfortable about approaching managers when they know a baby is on the way so that they can access all the help offered by the company.
"I think that requires some training and coaching of managers," Barry said. "You talk about the benefits that are available. You talk about the fact that there are flexible work arrangements."
Above all: No backbiting. If workers use the benefits, management should make it clear that they will not be punished in any way.
The culture should be supportive and nurturing for all. Today, Employee A is taking leave. One day, Employee B may be the one on leave and we will support them, too — that should be the message put across, Barry noted.
Key 2: Respect all definitions of flexibility.
Yes, we know. Workers will ask or quietly seethe over the notion that if only moms and dads take such long leaves, isn't that unfair to everyone else?
That's one of the biggest perception problems with parental leave programs, and it can be solved by implementing a culture that is "supportive of all life stages," Barry said.
"Sit down. Discuss as a team: What do you want consideration for?" she added. "A lot of it revolves around children, but for other people that consideration may be different things."
At one point in her career, Barry's small team at a large financial services company — not known as a forgiving industry flexibility-wise — did that very thing. Each team member put why they wanted flexibility on the table, and in turn, each team member agreed to respect everyone's need for flexibility.
No one reason was considered "more worthy" than others; a father's desire to be home for his children once a week wasn't prioritized over another person's desire for personal workouts.
"Everyone realized that everyone deserves those little breaks for things that we have to do. There was no prioritizing one over the other," Barry said. "It was about transparency and honesty and respect."
Real work-life flexibility respects the unique ways each person lives. For a larger parental leave program to work, that attitude needs to be embedded in the company's culture outright.
Key 3: Don't forget to congratulate them.
When an associate approaches a manager to announce the pregnancy, a manager's first response could easily be "Oh no" ... and that's not a great place to start.
The manager's plight is real. Having an employee out can stress a team that has to cover additional work. “Who will cover her accounts? What if she doesn't want to pick back up those relationships again after her leave? How will I manage the absence? And what if she doesn't come back at all?" This also applies for spouses of the pregnant woman.
"The only thing you are allowed to say is ‘Congratulations, let’s set up lunch to talk about it.'"
General Manager, Working Mother Media
All these things are going through a manager's head — and they forget to look that person in the eye and congratulate them, Barry said.
Let the employee enjoy that moment, and let them know that the management team and HR will do everything they can to help.
"The only thing you are allowed to say is 'Congratulations, let's set up lunch to talk about it," Barry said.
After that, the person going on leave should be given information about how their job will be handled in their absence. Let them decide how connected they want to be during leave, and ensure they are empowered to do the work (and be on leave) on their own terms.
Key 4: Remove biases at every step for leave to work.
Some of these strategies run into trouble when a subpar employee is asking to take the leave. An employer may be considerably less understanding when someone on a PIP announces they will need a large chunk of time off. But it all goes back to your core HR practices, Barry said.
How do you recruit, promote and provide feedback? How do you ensure people in their jobs are doing a good job? Bias has to be removed from every one of these processes, and they need to be forthright and fair to all.
"I think about what is possible when companies really open their minds to the end objective, which is to retain really good, talented women employees ... then all of this would fall into place," Barry said. "Many companies may not be focused on that outcome and get lost in the weeds in the middle."