Parental leave isn’t just policy at my company — it’s a huge part of our culture, and here’s how

Ben Waber.

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Ben Waber.
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Courtesy of Ben Waber
  • Dr. Ben Waber is the president and cofounder of Humanyze, an organizational analytics company, and the author of “People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us about the Future of Work.” He is a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, previously worked as a senior researcher at Harvard Business School, and received his PhD from MIT. He has consulted for industry leaders such as LG, McKinsey & Company, and Gartner on technology trends, social networks, and organizational design.
  • Waber writes that companies can’t just create a strong parental leave policy on paper – leaders need to visibly support and model these behaviors.
  • At Humanyze, everyone on the leadership team – regardless of gender – took their full parental leave. And when an employee is expecting, a member of leadership meets with them and their manager to create a leave plan.
  • He says taking these measures for parental leave is an investment in retaining talent – and is doing what’s right for society.
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Over the last decade, companies have started to recognize that offering equal parental leave to both men and women is a good business decision, good for child development, and a moral decision for creating a healthy company culture and ensuring people remain engaged after they become parents.

At Humanyze, I’ve made it a priority to give equal parental leave to employees and encourage the men and women on our team to take the entire amount of leave as it suits their needs. For me, the goal is to create an environment that supports every parent on the Humanyze team, because every parent – not just the birth mother – needs time to adjust and help support their growing family.

People still feel pressure from employers and society at large to not take too much time off (or any time at all) after having a baby. This is particularly true for men, and this is encoded at a legal and social level. Paternity leave policies have been lackluster to nonexistent in the past, and the view of the mother as the primary caregiver is still dominant. At the same time, many women don’t even take full advantage of their company’s parental leave policy or are penalized in their career when they do. Clearly, companies can’t just put down an equal parental leave policy on paper and expect it to become reality. They need to build a strong parental leave culture with visible leadership support, with those same leaders modeling ideal leave behaviors.

We’ve made tangible progress toward creating this culture, though it’s a never-ending project. On a formal level, we give both parents equal leave. We’ve also let our actions speak to the importance of parental leave. Under this policy, everyone on the leadership team (both male and female) who has had children took their full time off. This is arguably more powerful than any other step you can take. Importantly, leadership doesn’t just take some time off – they take their fully allotted leave.

Beyond this, a member of leadership meets with each employee who’s expecting, along with their manager to come up with a leave plan. How will they take their leave over the first year after birth? All at once, or split up? Different situations require different plans, and building that flexibility into the program while also working with their team to understand where tradeoffs can be made is critical for success. We also work with their team directly to allocate responsibilities while the person is on leave, and help onboard them again when they’re back full time. This ensures that they’ll be able to return to the exact same position when their leave ends.

It certainly isn’t perfect, but this approach has yielded real results. Every person that has taken parental leave at Humanyze has used the full time. We view this as a moral success for the company, but of course there are business benefits as well. Companies with better work-life integration practices are able to recruit and retain people more effectively, reducing spend on recruiters and the cost to the company when qualified people leave the company.

For those who need convincing, here’s a good rule of thumb: Replacing a veteran employee with a new hire costs about 33% of that person’s yearly salary. This includes recruiting costs, training, and lost productivity. Multiply that across all the parents who leave because they’re not able to navigate their personal and professional lives at an organization and you get huge amounts of money getting set on fire because companies refuse to step up and create an equitable leave environment.

While other companies have similar policies to Humanyze, the big difference is that our parental leave isn’t just policy – it’s a company culture where leadership actively works to support their employees throughout the organization and for new or soon-to-be parents, demonstrate support for them to take time off.

Each case is different, and success requires constant attention to navigate unique situations and to demonstrate support and buy in across the organization. Having a written policy will have no effect on leave behavior unless it’s supported culturally, and employees see people who take leave being promoted and supported. Clear leadership support is also a must. There have been instances where company CEOs have been praised in the news for taking time off after having a child. While this seems like a great step forward, many times these leaders aren’t taking the full parental leave policy, which creates a norm where maybe half the leave is acceptable, but most likely not more than that.

Building a strong culture around parental leave is hard work. It may also seem frivolous. But companies that are serious about retaining the best talent and doing what’s right for society need to make this investment. Otherwise they’ll eventually be left in the dust by competitors who do.