Leaders at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pushed for a policy that took their parental leave policy from 12 weeks to up to 52 weeks of paid time off, and it was approved in a matter of a few short weeks. Anyone on leave when the announcement was made, was eligible for the extended benefit, and those using or looking to utilize this policy are few people in the country with this kind of benefit. With the exception of Netflix, not many other companies offer workers (of all genders) a chance to take a full year off to be with their newborn babies.
That’s largely because the United States is the only industrialized country that does not offer all citizens federally mandated paid family leave. Just 14% of civilian workers had access to paid leave last year, mostly thanks to state laws and progressive employers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among 41 developed countries, the United States is the only one that does not have a federal law requiring paid leave for new parents, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported. The law does allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without risking losing their jobs after having a baby, but most developed countries offer an average of about one year of paid leave, according to Business Insider.
In the absence of a federally mandated paid leave policy, some states and cities have implemented their own, while private and public companies also created their own policies. In fact, Fast Company has covered the rat race for organizations to one-up each other with extended benefits ranging from 12 weeks to six months, in an effort to retain and attract talent. But the Gates Foundation has raised the bar with a full paid year off for new parents.
And, with more than two years of experience with the 52-week parental leave (and 222 new parents, 66% of whom are women and 34% of whom are men, participating out of a staff of 1,546), the Foundation’s chief human resources officer Steven Rice has said the policy change was a wise move. He also explained how the Foundation is pulling it off:
“Managers are now learning how to quantify the work that needs to get done, how to reset goals and expectations across the team, how to train a backfill individual that’s going to be there for 12 to 18 months,” Rice told Fast Company, since leadership has had to figure out how to get work done with key contributors out of the game for so long. “We have toolkits. We do learning sessions and focus groups for the management team.”
“We’ve had to be extremely prescriptive that the individual going on leave is the person who actually describes what connectivity looks like. Before someone goes out, we spend a lot of time with them, asking what good and bad connectivity looks like. We don’t want to prescribe that it has be zero offline. We have a lot of type A personality folks here who want to stay connected.
“Through that conversation, we’re pushing a lot of their strongly held beliefs that they need to call in every month, or they need to be reviewing email, or still want to be in staff meetings. I’ve had three individuals on my team say, ‘I would like it if I can get a phone call with you for 30 minutes every three to four months,’ and I say, ‘It needs to be what you view as being a positive connection back into the organization.’ ”
“I never anticipated how we were going to manage backfills [to replace employees on leave] when we launched this program. We now have a website that shows all the opportunities popping up through the organization, and we now have people applying for these backfill positions as stretch opportunities for them to grow in their career and experiment and experience new parts of the organization that they wouldn’t have experienced previously.”
Supporting fathers to take leave, too
“Men who are in leadership roles feel a different type of stress or pressure on needing to want to take some time off but get back into the job. They probably hang onto the work much more strongly than a man in an individual contributor role. So we’re working on how can they actually delegate work and responsibilities, still feel supported, and feel that their re-entry would be managed.”
Reintroducing those who’ve taken leave
“Like any dynamic organization, a year is a long time in terms of how many changes or shifts happen. So we’ve actually had managers do a new hire orientation to bring the individual back in. We weren’t anticipating the depth of how much that work was going to be for the manager. So those are the two areas that we underestimated, and probably where we still continue to do a lot of our work.”