Newspaper article International New York Times

Better Paternity Leave, but Will There Be Any Takers?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Better Paternity Leave, but Will There Be Any Takers?

Article excerpt

Paid paternity leave offers broad benefits, but it won't become common until prominent men use it and don't pay a penalty for doing so.

Two companies recently joined in an unfolding race to provide ever more generous paid parental leave. Netflix said last week that it planned to offer unlimited leave in the first year after a child's arrival to many (though not all) of its employees, while Microsoft said it would substantially increase the paid leave that it provides.

Both companies are playing catch-up with the likes of Facebook, which offers four months of paid leave. Its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, had his own announcement to make in recent days: He and his wife are expecting their first child.

For all the good that may come from the new policies at Netflix and Microsoft, Mr. Zuckerberg may have the biggest opportunity to help members of the paternity fraternity by using every last day of his leave. Without prominent men in high-performing organizations making parental leave the default choice, the mainstreaming of paid leave for fathers will take a lot longer.

Paid paternity leave is an incredible privilege for employees in the small number of companies that offer it, and keeping the paychecks coming helps a lot. Cultural hurdles, however, are far harder to clear. Taking a lengthy paternity leave in a company where few, if any, senior men have ever done so requires a fair bit of courage. And while some employers believe that generous maternity leave more than pays for itself in retention, there is little proof that male employees won't experience a career stall immediately afterward if they dare to step out for a while.

This evidence cannot emerge without employers' offering paid paternity leave in the first place, and most of the people (generally older, often men) who sign off on these policy changes generally haven't seen fit to do so. Only 17 percent of the employers that the Society for Human Resource Management surveys provide fathers with the benefit.

Employers who do so tend to be clustered in industries like technology, finance and professional services. Yes, the rich get richer, though it stands to reason that employers who already pay generously would lead the pack here. There are real productivity losses and recruiting costs they would otherwise bear in having bleary-eyed employees roaming the halls and others quitting altogether to stay home with new children. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island require some paid parental leave to all new parents; payroll taxes provide the funds.

Netflix and Microsoft are on the outer edge of generosity, as you can see from the chart accompanying this column. There, I list the most generous employers I could find. If I missed yours, please post a comment and let me know, because I'll be regularly updating the chart online.

The unlimited leave at Netflix appears to be unprecedented among large employers in the United States, though it's anyone's guess as to what the average length will turn out to be. The company did not try to model it out before its announcement.

Employers that consider offering unlimited vacation time tend not to go through with it, according to their consultants. "Their concern is that if they don't tell their employees two weeks or four weeks, then it will be fuzzy and usage will go down," said Rich Fuerstenberg, senior partner for Mercer's health and benefits business.

New fathers at Microsoft will now get 12 weeks of paid leave, identical to what mothers get (though the women may also be eligible for an additional eight weeks of disability pay). This equality stands in contrast with an odd requirement at other employers, where they ask you to declare yourself the "primary" caregiver before you qualify for the most generous paid leave. The secondary parent gets less paid time off.

No in-home audits are required, but every expert I spoke to disapproved of classifying commitment in this way. …

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