Beyond Netflix: Executives need to start taking maternity leave

Let us be the first to applaud Netflix for raising the bar on fully paid leave for new parents. Its decision to start an unlimited leave policy for new moms and dads for the first year after birth or adoption is truly outstanding.

Netflix workers sort DVDs at the company's Piscataway, New Jersey, distribution center.
Marine Laouchez | AFP | Getty Images
Netflix workers sort DVDs at the company's Piscataway, New Jersey, distribution center.

Few companies currently offer paid parental leave and when they do, it's not that much. At the Working Mother 100 Best Companies, for example, the average number of fully paid weeks offered is seven.

More and more companies seem to understand that moms and dads are valuable employees that they can't afford to lose, and that having kids is a reasonable thing for even the most committed employees to do. Accommodating parenthood isn't a nice thing to do — it's an essential thing to do if you want to have a diverse, experienced, effective workforce.

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And, it seems to be good for business: Google reported that, following its decision to extend its paid maternity leave to 18 weeks from 12 in 2007, its new moms turnover rate shrank by half.

So, certainly, more weeks means more working moms. But all that said, simply announcing a great new leave policy isn't enough — if employees worry that they'll look like slackers by taking leave, they won't do it. To be considered a Working Mother 100 Best Company, employers must prove not only that offer paid maternity, paternity and adoption leave, but that their employees are actually taking advantage of their policies. Access is one thing, but usage is another.

So, how do you create a culture that supports the use of paid parental leave?

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First, manager training and accountability. When employees reveal news of their new baby, managers must know how best to react — and how not to telegraph hesitancy in executing the benefit. Similarly, colleagues of employees taking time off shouldn't be left to pick up all the slack without replacement support, or they'll become resentful.

Second, top-level executives (especially men) have to become role models and take advantage of the policy themselves. There's nothing more powerful in telegraphing workplace culture that that of leadership taking public advantage of a policy, and encouraging others to do the same.

It's all a matter of making sure the company's culture matches its policies.

Companies have to make sure employees know that they're serious, and that taking the offered leave won't be held against them. And they need to make sure that co-workers of the person on leave receive the support they need to continue getting the work done without the new parent in the office.

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Commentary by Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media and the Working Mother Research Institute. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @working_mother.