Cindy Alvarez

It’s not okay to not have a parental leave policy

A Tale of Two Maternity Leaves

Three months ago, I came back to work after the birth of my second child.

Because I work for a Microsoft-owned company, I had a pretty sweet deal: 12 weeks' fully paid leave, plus the ability to spend some extra time working from home both before my delivery and after my return.

Many startups or smaller companies can't afford to offer an equally generous policy. And that's okay. But what's not okay is the glaring absence of any sort of parental leave policy.

Getting Pregnant at a Small Startup

When I had my first child, I worked for a small startup -- one which was too small to be legally required to give me time off, and too early-stage to be able to afford to pay for my leave. But I didn't need a deluxe maternity leave policy to make me feel comfortable and valued and eager to return to work.

What was most important to me was something that all startups can offer -- understanding and flexibility.

"Come back when you're ready." That's what my manager told me, and he was absolutely clear that no one was going to pressure me or guilt me into returning before I was ready.

Now, this startup didn't have a maternity leave policy written up prior to me joining. But as it happened, I met the CEO when I was 5 months (and very visibly) pregnant. Job hunting while pregnant sounds like most women's worst nightmare. It was stressful. But it also forced me to clearly articulate what I needed, what my plan was, and why I was confident that I could minimize the impact to my employer.

I had an easy delivery and an easy baby. That allowed me to start getting bored and antsy after 6 weeks, which meant I was happy to start easing back into work. (Not every parent and baby situation lends itself to bouncing back after 6 weeks. So substitute ‘8 weeks’ or ‘12 weeks’ in some situations.)

I worked from home. (The entire company was virtual, which made this even easier.)

I got my job done during the hours that were easiest for me to work. I probably worked 20 hours the first week back, and gradually increased that until I was back at full capacity. I got to nap when I needed it and spend time bonding with my baby. And honestly, I probably built better relationships with many of our customers in different time zones who were delighted to get immediate replies to their emails at 3am PST.

My leave for kid #1 was unpaid.*

That was entirely understandable to me, because I knew exactly how much funding we'd raised, and the company had a high degree of transparency around spending (i.e. we were frugal wherever possible, not just in regards of employee perks). That was okay. I could swing it.

* Because I live in California, I was able to draw partial pay due to the Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL) and Paid Family Leave (PFL) acts. These work in conjunction with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which preserves your job but does not provide pay. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are the only states that offer any type of paid family leave. If you live in the other 47, FMLA will preserve your job for 12 weeks but you’ll be dipping into your emergency savings. Hopefully you have some.

Getting Pregnant at a Large Enterprise

With kid #2 and working for Microsoft, obviously, I had higher expectations.

As a giant company, Microsoft has tons of money in the bank, spends tons of money in lots of areas, and offers quite generous employee perks. (Mothers get 12 weeks' paid leave, fathers get 6 weeks. Facebook and Google offer more leave.) Updated as of late 2015: Microsoft now offers 12 weeks parental leave for both birth parents and both adoptive parents. They are still trumped by Facebook and Google, though.

Getting paid during my leave was definitely an improvement. But ultimately, the money (for a short period of time) is not the most important thing.

What was -- and is -- most important to me is the reassurance of knowing that my job was secure and that my relationship with my manager and coworkers wouldn't be damaged by my time out of office.

That cultural aspect is harder to preserve. Benefits, you can just "set it and forget it". Attitudes require constant gardening and reinforcement from both peers and managers.

I've had a highly positive experience returning to work and managing my schedule with multiple kids, but my experience is sadly not universal at Microsoft. It probably helps that both my manager and our GM have babies AND the personal commitment to be home for family meals and doctors appointments, etc.

Because both of my maternity leave periods were positive experiences, I returned to work refreshed (well, as refreshed as one can be with a newborn) and ready to do more great work. I'm incredibly grateful that I've had two great experiences. I'm also sobered by the fact that my positive experiences are far from the norm for women (and parents in general) in tech.

"But wait, does my company really need a parental leave policy?"

You might be thinking:

Yes, you do need a parental leave policy.

Lots of companies talk about being inclusive, diverse, and valuing their employees above all – don’t just say it, put action behind it. Waiting until something happens before creating a policy does a disservice to your employees and to your company.

Because, if you don’t have a stated parental leave policy, you’re probably already losing out in these ways:

Potential talent.

Lack of a stated parental leave policy is probably preventing some great employees from considering you as an employer. Not just prospective mothers, either. There are plenty of prospective dads who want to know that they'll have time to spend with their kids.

Lack of a parental leave policy signals that parents don't work here. It also signals that work-life balance isn't valued here. Which means that the amazing engineer who runs marathons or the incredible designer who works on open source projects may also bypass your company when they're seeking their next opportunity.

Current talent.

Obviously, if you have no parental leave policy in place, you're likely to lose current employees when they become parents. But even if you put one in place "just in time", it probably isn't.

When companies fail to plan for parental leave policies, there are often cultural issues that go beyond the actual time out of office. Most startups and small companies are open to the idea of working from home or flexible hours. But if managers don't make their expectations clear, then it's easy to accuse employees of abusing that privilege. If managers don't allow or encourage flexible hours for ALL employees, then the parent is likely to be penalized for lack of face time. If face time is perceived as valuable, then the value of actual productivity tends to be downplayed. That's not something you want to be a part of your culture. Not if you want your startup to succeed, anyways.

The other consequence of failing to plan for parental leave is this: when an employee is out of the office, all of their work gets dumped on the remaining employees. This lowers work quality and builds resentment between team members.

If leave time is an accepted policy, then people find a way to make it work. If it's an ad hoc situation, it can easily become a disaster. (Employees on leave doesn't just happen when people become parents, either. Young childless people get in skiing accidents, car crashes, or suffer bouts of disease, too. When those unfortunate events happen, you will have to deal with their workload and how to get it done.)

Money.

Using an external recruiter to replace the employee you lose will probably cost you at least 20% of their annual salary. In the Bay Area, for an experienced engineer, that could easily run you $25-45K. Not to mention the cost of the time to ramp them up and get them productive. Maybe you have in-house recruiters? Okay, then let's say you're paying 1/6-1/8 of your recruiter's salary, for the time it takes them to land that candidate. Not to mention the opportunity cost of positions they could otherwise be recruiting for.

Small Startup Parental Leave Policy

Fine, fine, but crafting a policy seems like a lot of work...

Forget that excuse. Here, I did it for you. You can copy and paste this:

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

[Fill in your company's name] Parental Leave Policy

* Again, if you’re in the state of California, women are entitled to some pay through Paid Disability Leave and both women and men can get Paid Family Leave wages.

** Which shouldn’t be limited to solely parents. Your other employees also get sick and need to visit the dentist, some may be caring for aging parents, etc.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

Some more stuff:

Work Handoff

But wait, what about the work that employee was doing?...

During both pregnancies, I actually found that planning my handoff of duties was an extremely valuable exercise. It forced me to identify where I create the most value, and uncover some tasks I was doing that weren't actually that useful (and stop doing them). Training co-workers allowed me to redistribute knowledge that had previously been trapped in only my head, and challenged them to gain new skills quickly.

In my most recent leave, I delegated my most critical management and communication tasks between two promising employees. As a direct result of them taking on additional responsibility, one earned a promotion and the other successfully transitioned to a new role that she'd been yearning to try.

Flexible Working Hours

I generally assume that startups should be okay with allowing any people to work from home or set their own hours, not just parents! But if it's not codified (and allowed/encouraged for other employees), then there's a good chance that the parent will be penalized for lack of face time, even if they are MORE productive.

Unpaid Leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act is a federal law requiring that ANY employee be allowed up to 12 weeks unpaid leave for any health-related reason (to recover from illness, to care for a family member, etc.) with a guarantee that the employee returns to the same job at the same pay.

FMLA has some exceptions:

Don’t be a weasel and use these exceptions to get out of treating your employees well.

There are a lot of startups who employ fewer than 50 people, and probably also a number of cases where someone is due to have a baby before their 1-year work-iversary. You should adhere to FMLA anyways. 12 weeks of unpaid leave is a worthwhile investment to preserve the talent you have and invest in a healthy employee-respecting culture.

Semi-Paid Leave

Even if they don't know your exact burn rate, your employees have a decent sense of how much money you have and how much your company spends. If you regularly host all-night open bar happy hours, or send entire teams to conferences across the country, you can afford to offer at least partial pay for parental leave. You don't have to make the big jump from unpaid leave to 12 weeks at 100% pay -- even offering something like 6 weeks at 50% pay and another 6 weeks unpaid would be a big benefit for a new parent (and cheap compared to the cost of replacing them.) Do what you can.

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Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer or an HR professional. I'm just someone who loves the tech industry and doesn't want to see us lose talented employees just because they start a family. You shouldn't, either.

Parents, prospective parents, and people who maybe someday might want to become parents: I hope your current or future employers have a parental leave policy, or read this blog post and create one.

But even if not, in the meantime, you probably have more rights than your employer knows about (or is willing to tell you about). http://babygate.abetterbalance.org/ is a newly launched state-by-state guide to pregnancy and parenting at work.
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Thanks to Dawn Nott, Hiten Shah, and Nancy Sims for reading and offering feedback during the draft phases of this post.