A handful of Silicon Valley companies provide employees with generous (at least by American standards) leave policies upon the birth or adoption of a child.
Google offers 18 weeks of paid maternity leave. Facebook gives four months. Twitter, 20 weeks.
Now Netflix has gone and outdone them all—way outdone them all. Yesterday, the company’s chief talent officer announced that it will allow new moms and dads to take as much time off as they’d like in a baby’s first year of life.
That’s a lot. By American standards, all but unheard of. Joan Williams, the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings, applauded Netflix’s move, calling one year of leave “just about ideal.”
“It’s heartening to see an American company giving what is fundamentally the suitable amount of parental leave and making it available equally for men and women,” she said. “To require people as a condition of keeping their jobs to return to work when the baby’s three months old is not civilized behavior.”
Now that Netflix has outlined such a generous option, the difficulties lie in implementing it in a way that both men and women take advantage of it. This is crucial, because if only women employees take Netflix up on its offer, the generosity of the policy could backfire, pushing women onto a “mommy track,” with fewer promotions and fewer raises in the offing. The good news for Netflix, Williams argues, is that this isn’t all that hard to do.
“What you do is,” she says, “when a man announces that his partner is pregnant you just have a really informal meeting with him, congratulate him, and say, ‘By the way around here we expect everybody to take parental leave, and it’s very important to us ... for business reasons.’”
Another challenge will be in ensuring that people up and down the corporate ladder take the time they need. “Expecting your entry-level Netflix employees to do this first is asking them to stick their necks out,” says Caitlyn Collins, a doctoral student at the University of Texas, Austin, who studies parental-leave policies around the world. Managers will have to set an example if they want the policy to be used. “We know that when managers, for example, demonstrate the use of policies themselves, employees feel much more comfortable following suit.”
Williams says that beyond the question of who takes the leave, there’s also the question of how to smooth the transitions out of work and back to work, both for the sake of the new parents and for their colleagues who will be covering for them while they’re away. In preparation for employees to leave, she recommends a system of three meetings—one that’s essentially for congratulating the parent-to-be, another for helping him or her create a transition plan, and a third, just a few weeks before the due date, making sure the transition is on track—and she recommends a similar, formal plan be made for when an employee comes back to work.
“We hear again and again women return from maternity leave and they have a really hard time getting work. Because people think, ‘I can't give her work, she has lots of responsibilities, I don't want to burden her,’ and also, less benevolently, ‘she has other priorities, I don't want to work with her now.’” With a transition plan in place, this process can go much more smoothly, and decrease resentment both toward the employees on leave and the leave policy itself.
Is Netflix’s policy possibly too generous? Will new parents find their careers irreparably set back after a year out of the office?
Collins says that research has shown that one year of leave really strikes the right balance. At one year old, most babies are done breastfeeding (or, at least, can eat cow’s milk and solid food during the day), they’re sleeping more regularly (parents will be a bit better rested for work), and childcare costs drop (daycare centers require fewer providers per one-year-old than per infant). At the same time, one year away from work won’t set parents back too much, in terms of keeping up with new technologies, systems, and organizational changes. This is all the more the case if the transitions are handled thoughtfully, as per Williams’s advice.
Perhaps the worst that can be said of Netflix’s policy is that it’s such a rarity. Without a federal mandate, parental leave in America is unevenly distributed and often grossly inadequate. “Workers who are in the most desirable jobs are the ones who are getting these benefits,” Collins says. “Netflix is a really desirable company to work for and so, they want to attract top talent, and so that means they get access to this paid leave and workers at the bottom of the labor market don't.”
“The fact that the U.S. is one of only two countries in the entire world that doesn't have federally-mandated paid parental leave is a travesty,” she added.
Williams agreed: “What we should have is national parental leave, equally available for men and women, and financed on a federal basis. That’s what virtually every other industrialized country has, and the reason is that the country is not one generation long. We have to raise the next generation—that is a macroeconomic imperative and it is a patriotic imperative.”
Of course, raising the next generation (and supporting their parents) doesn’t merely require generous parental leave following the birth of a baby—kids, after all, aren’t set to go at the ripe old age of one. “If you have a child living at home for 18 years,” Collins says, “it’s really wonderful and really important that you have time to spend with your child in the first year of its birth, but it's also really important that you get to attend their recitals and their soccer games and take them to the doctor when they're sick and those things don't just happen in the first year of a child's birth.”
To get there, companies will need to take steps beyond parental leave in the first year of life and look at ways of protecting employees’ family time when they’re away from the office (such as policies that ban or discourage after-hours email) and providing generous vacation benefits. But those are projects for another day.