A Maternity Leave Policy That Makes Sense


It’s 2018 and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 13 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid leave.  The U.S. is only one of three countries in the world that does not provide access to paid maternity leave.  And while most of the country agrees that paid family leave is critical, there is still a lot of debate on whether that falls on the government to provide.  So for now, we are still in a position where most of Americans rely on their employers to provide paid leave.


As an employer, whether creating a maternity leave policy from scratch or reconsidering your current leave policies, there are a lot of factors to consider.  Great maternity leave policies have the opportunity to differentiate you as an employer that truly values your most important asset – your talent.  So where do you start?


1)    The health and recovery of your employee  

A stark report run by In These Times found that 25% of new mothers return to work within two weeks of childbirth.  At two weeks, these women have not even seen their doctors to be cleared for any physical activity and in the case of C-section, most likely still can not walk well, carry their babies and shouldn’t be driving.  While most people would agree that this is detrimental to the health of the mother and the child many people struggle with how much leave is actually appropriate.  The Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 enable that workers in 5 states are able to apply for disability for six to eight weeks, which was, at the time, considered sufficient time to recover physically.  However new research indicates that many mothers are pushing through pain, post-partum depression and anxiety, fatigue and other illnesses that require a longer recovery period.  The New America Foundation recently released a new report and has surmised that for the best health of the mother and baby, a paid maternity leave policy should be a minimum of six months.


2)    Infant Health

In addition to the health of your employee, consider the health of their dependent.  Infant mortality rates decrease with increased paid maternity leave policies.  This allows parents to establish and maintain breastfeeding, which is recommended by the WHO for two years and exclusively for six months.  Better paid-leave policies allow parents to ensure infants are receiving all recommended immunizations, attending well-baby visits, and develop stronger bonds between baby and parent.


3)    Gender Parity | Women in Leadership

More and more reports are tying gender parity in the workplace directly the maternal wall and motherhood penalty / pay gap.  Women fall off financially and fail to make leadership strides in their careers as a direct result of having children.  And whether conscious or not, there is a lot of stigma in our country about what motherhood should look like and what it looks like to be a dedicated employee and those are often in conflict. 71% of mothers with children under 18 work, yet, according to Pew Research, 80% of Americans believe that in a two-parent home, one parent should work part time (36%) or not at all (44%).  One place to combat some of this innate bias is by incorporating all parents into your maternity leave policy.  Instead of focusing just on the birthing women, consider creating a leave policy that provides parental leave for fathers, non-birthing mothers and adoptive parents.  Think about it.  If you have one leave policy for birth mothers or primary parents and another for a “secondary parent”, you are creating a divide that typically impacts women in your organization.  The second part of this is to also encourage non-birthing parents to take their full leave benefit.  The goal is to reduce the bias that occurs when manager are considering employees for promotions, stretch assignments, or even hiring in the first place.  When there is a similar expectation that men and women will take equal time off with their newborn child and equally partake in care of children, there is an opportunity for less discrimination against working mothers.


4)    All workers

Yes, only 13% of Americans have access to paid family leave, however the majority of those lucky enough to work for an employer offering a paid maternity leave policy or paternity leave policy are in white-collar corporate positions.  When developing a parental leave policy, it’s important to recognize that low and middle income families are often left even farther behind, currently only 6% of low-income workers have any access to paid leave.  Follow the lead of companies such as Starbucks and Nike, which have expanded leave policies to include benefits-eligible retail workers. 


5)    IT's GOod Business

Paid leave pays. Research from the Boston Consulting Group outlines that paid leave works.  It significantly reduces attrition rates, attracts better talent, improves morale and productivity, shows a commitment to employees and values and also attracts consumers and improving brand.  For example, when Google expanded their leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks, the rate at which new mothers quit dropped by 50%.  That translates into millions of dollars saved for the company as well as improved morale and retention of knowledge.  And EY ran a study showing that 92% of employers with a paid leave policy reported a positive or no effect on profitability.


6)    Set a standard  

Every baby is different, every family is different, every business line is different and every team is different.  So how do you create a policy that works for everyone?  Honestly, you won’t.  But there is a way to structure your policy so that it creates a fair playing field (see the section on gender parity) but also allows for the nuance your employees may need to successfully ramp back up to work.  First set a standard.  Much like, unlimited vacation, unclear leave policies create confusion, breed bias and allow managers to make decisions that may not be in the best interest of the overall organization.  For example, currently a company policy allows for “up to” 52 weeks of leave.  From a PR and talent attraction perspective, it’s a very exciting benefit.  However, when actually in seat, employees then later find themselves trying to navigate how much of the “up to” 52 weeks they should take.  This quickly becomes a challenge as it puts the new parent in a position where they need to negotiate with their manager how much leave is appropriate – usually before baby arrives.  And depending on the culture of the group or the level of the employee, this can put many people at a significant disadvantage.  What’s the perception of dedication to work, when Mary only needs 12 weeks and but Susie is struggling to breastfeed and knows that staying home with her baby much longer will allow her to sufficiently feed her baby?  How does that impact their opportunity for advancement?  Instead, a set standard policy puts all employees on a level playing field regardless of their manager, team, current role within the organization. 


7)    Add in some flexibility  

Going back to the notion that every baby is different, every family is different, every business line is different and every team is different.  Allowing for flexibility can be a game changer for employees, especially for ones with any sort of recovery concerns and/challenges with their babies.  By first setting a standard and then building in flexibility, it gives employees a framework to expect and understand.  For example, an employer could provide a minimum of six months of paid family leave as recommended by the New American Foundation, however they may do this establishing a 13 weeks of standard leave, followed by 13 weeks to be taken within the first year of the child’s life.  This allows parents to determine what’s best for their baby and their family while also considering their professional goals and their team’s goals.


Clearly there is a lot to consider when building a maternity leave policy (ideally a parental leave policy) that works for your organization and if you are starting from scratch, the best thing to do is start the conversation.  Research other companies in your industry so in addition to sharing all the reasons why paid leave makes sense, you can also provide competitive data. 


Create a proposal (you can find a great one from paidleave.us) that outlines the why’s, share any data or stories from your own company about how the lack of leave has impacted other employees, provide any competitive data you’ve gathered, highlight gaps in your current maternity leave policy and finally provide a proposed policy. 


We’ve outlined a slightly different “gold standard” to provide a framework around flexibility.  Start with an ideal proposal similar to the following:

·      Parental leave of 13 consecutive weeks at 100% pay for all new parents (can run concurrently with any state disability) following the birth, adoption of a child, or placement of a foster-child in their home.  These consecutive 13 weeks can been taken at any point in the twelve-month period following the birth of placement of the child.

·      Parental leave of an additional 13 weeks at 100% pay to be taken flexibly within the twelve-month period following the birth or place of the child.  This portion of the leave may be taken immediately following the first 13 weeks, to create 26 weeks of continuous leave or used more flexibly at the employee’s discretion.  Employees are encouraged to discuss their plans with their manager prior to their initial leave and request any changes if their needs change.