Kudos to Amazon on New Parental Leave Policy... But Did They Get it Right?

The question is, in high-performing companies, what is the penalty for using it?

First of all congratulations to Amazon. Last week, Amazon stepped out with an improved paternity leave program joining the ranks of Bank of America, Adobe, Twitter, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Goldman Sachs and Microsoft with a best in class program. Amazon now offers up to 20 parental leave for birth mothers, and six weeks for all new parents. Their enhanced policy includes a "leave-share" program to share their leave with partners who many not have a leave policy at their workplace along with a "ramp back" program to ease back to work with flextime mother and father. This type of program should be the norm in every company that says it truly cares about talent.

Sadly, the United States is the only developed nation that does not offer paid family and medical leave as the law of the land. According to the U.S Department of Labor only 12 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employers. In August, Adobe announced improvements to its family leave programs stating 'Caring for yourself and your family at home helps you be your best at work.'

"In the U.S., government mandates for paid leave are currently slim to nonexistent," wrote Donna Morris, Adobe's Senior Vice President of People and Places, on the Abode blog. "That means companies must navigate the tough balance between supporting employees during major life events and meeting business goals."

My point is not to debate a national agenda. Many progressive Fortune 500 companies offer some type of leave. Ironically most women who have children in this country have to take short-term disability to get paid, (so in essence we are saying having children in this country is akin to being disabled, but I digress.)

The question is, in high-performing companies, what is the penalty for using it?

Fear of being penalized
I work with many progressive Fortune 500 companies who have great benefits packages and policies. But when you talk to folks privately they reveal that while the policy is good, people are afraid to use it.

One women I spoke with of a Fortune 50 company, "I never took 16 weeks. Our company ranks every employee annually and if you miss four months you cannot possibly meet your goals and still be perceived as high performing." In high performing cultures where everything is measured and you are held accountable, few people, especially men, take advantage of these benefits. A colleague also shared a story of her son, a millennial male, (new father) in another major company with great benefits who was advised not use flex time as it would be detrimental.

The 2015 LEAN IN and McKinsey&Company "Women in the Workplace" study found that there is significant evidence that employees are reluctant to participate for fear of being penalized. More than 90 percent of both women and men believe taking extended family leave will hurt their position at work--and more than half believe it will hurt them a great deal.

So what can companies do to insure employees are not being penalized?
  • Track and monitor usage. Do you merely have a nice policy or are people using it without fear. Management needs to ask for the number of all employees, women and men and track program usage annually. If you no one is using the program(s) it is possible you have a potential issue. It is leadership's responsibility to insure that there is no disparate impact that results from simply having a child.
  • Insure equity in your Performance Management cycle. Determine your company's connection to individual performance ratings and their maternity leave. Chances are the women who opt to take maternity leave will be rated lower than their peers as they have effectively worked 12 to 16 fewer weeks in a year. You may say, "well that's only fair, she wasn't here for an entire year." It may be fair but it is certainly not equitable. Progressive companies are basing a woman's (or man's) rating against the actual time she worked in a year, thereby minimizing the impact of time off. PwC actually let's new mother's opt out of performance ratings for a year.
  • Model your best practices. There is no simple answer and we cannot mandate employees take advantage of our company benefits. Like all programs if you want employees to use them and benefit from them management must model the behaviors and talk about the success of such programs.

It's not enough to have a generous family leave program, companies also need to be aware of bias against people who use the programs.

Kudos to Amazon for taking a big vocal step. The proof now is in the usage.

Jeffery Tobias Halter is the country's leading male expert on advancing women and engaging men. He is the President of YWomen, a strategic consulting company focused on engaging men in women's leadership issues. Jeffery is a TEDx speaker, Huffington Post Blogger and the author of two books, WHY WOMEN, The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men and Selling to Men, Selling to Women. Keep in touch @YWomen.