Many years ago, I watched a female coworker get the short end of the paid maternity leave stick. It was a small company, and she was the first employee to ever get pregnant. The company didn’t have a paid parental leave policy so she basically just received the minimum required under FMLA maternity leave rules.
That’s the thing about negotiating paid parental leave: The best time to ask is before you take the job, not after you’re already employed (and pregnant).
Once expecting, so there isn’t exactly much wiggle room. Especially if you’re pregnant, you’re probably going to have a tough time finding a new job (it’s theoretically illegal to discriminate against hiring pregnant women . . . but let’s admit that biases still exist). It’d be doubly hard to quickly find a new gig that grants you excellent maternity benefits, since many jobs require you to be there a year before getting paid parental leave.
Later in my career, I watched a different female colleague negotiate for a good parental leave arrangement before she joined the company and before she was pregnant. And she got it. Down the road, she enjoyed much more paid time home with her new baby—and to recuperate physically and emotionally after childbirth.
That’s when I made a solemn vow to myself: When making a career move, I would never accept a job at a company that didn’t have a written paid parental leave policy. If push came to shove, I’d make them write a policy for me before I accepted.
According to one study, fewer than 40 percent of people negotiated their compensation at their last job offer. But compared to earlier this decade, double the number of employers offer at least some paid parental leave beyond what’s required by law, so I felt like the time was right to do what I could to move the needle, too.
I currently work at Fabric, a one-stop shop for families looking to organize their finances. As a company that focuses on new parents, you’d think that they’d be family friendly—but I didn’t want to assume. Don’t forget the vow I made to myself!
So when they made me a job offer, I told them I couldn’t accept until they came back to me with a written parental leave policy.
Their answer? “Y’know, this has been on our to-do list! We’ll get right on it.” Major points right there for company culture.
They came back to me three days later with a really robust policy. I’ll share the highlights, because I think these things are important:
All parents, both men and women, receive 12 weeks of paid parental leave if they’ve worked at the company at least a year. You can take another month on top of that without pay, if you choose.
Sometimes companies make mincemeat out of newer employees who haven’t been there a whole year—but people who work at Fabric less than a year still get 8 weeks of paid parental leave, with the option of an additional unpaid month.
The policy explicitly includes adoptive and foster parents.
Needless to say, I was impressed. For a scrappy young startup, I thought the policy was generous. And I was particularly impressed that they proactively included men and adoptive parents. After all, if women are the only ones exiting the workplace for a few months at a time, that creates a stigma and a bias against promoting them.
Since then, an employee at Fabric had a baby (not me!) and benefited from this exact policy.
Again, it’s illegal to discriminate against someone who’s pregnant or wants to have a baby. But biases are real, and I didn’t want to raise red flags or seem like I had any “special” reason for asking about a parental leave policy.
So I told them about my vow not to accept a job somewhere that didn’t have a written policy. First, that’s totally true. Second, it externalizes the ask: less “I need to know for myself” and more “it’s this thing I promised.”
Similarly, you could always point to this article (ahem) and blame your request on me: “Someone advised me to see a written parental leave policy before accepting any job offer—can you share your policy with me?”
Referring to it as “maternity” leave (instead of “parental” leave) puts the focus on women. It also has implications regarding biological birth as opposed to becoming a parent through adoption.
First, broadening the conversation is just a nice, fair thing to do. But even if you are a woman giving birth to a biological child, I firmly believe that including men in this conversation will help everyone. If we don’t normalize fathers taking time off, women will never get ahead, either.
And fathers also want time with their children!
The same rules apply to negotiating parental leave that apply to all other job negotiations. Just as you would for a salary negotiation, do a little research to learn what’s standard for people in your field. Can you share any comparative information with your prospective employer to help build the case that not offering a solid parental leave plan will put the company at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting solid talent?
If your future boss balks at the mention of parental leave, not a great sign. If they try to convince you that you don’t need to have this conversation right now, not a great sign. If they have a policy that’s not very generous and they’re not willing to budge (if that’s something that’s important to you), not a great sign.
Meanwhile, if they take your question seriously, like my employer did, that is a great sign. If they answer your question in a timely manner? Another good omen. And if they come back to you with a policy that feels thought-through and generous, you might just have a winner.
If you’re already at your company when you decide to have a child—and you didn’t negotiate parental leave in advance—never fear. Start by understanding what your company does typically offer, whether that means perusing an HR manual or asking your manager.
From there, if you’re not happy with what you find out, you can try to negotiate a better situation. Although some managers might be open to making you an exception to the rule, many will be uncomfortable with that ask. So, Harvard Business Review suggests, try instead to do a little research on what’s standard for your industry and come to your boss with a proposal.
You might note that other colleagues at your company have struggled with parental leave, which can hurt the bottom line if it increases employee churn. Suggest partnering with your manager to come up with solutions, and pitches to upper management, together.
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