Tackling the Resistance to Paid Leave

Paid-Family-LeaveBy Shifra Bronznick and Hillary Leone

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s groundbreaking new policy of 52 weeks of paid parental leave strikes at the core of the U.S.’s resistance to paid leave as an essential benefit. Only 13% of American workers receive paid leave.

Paid leave supports families, boosts productivity, attracts talent, dramatically improves retention rates, and enhances employee morale and loyalty.

What’s behind the resistance to paid leave?

In our work to advance paid leave in the resource-constrained nonprofit sector, we found many CEOs hadn’t even considered paid leave because they assumed it would add cost to an already stretched budget. It was simply not affordable.

We showed them the evidence. In more than 80% of the cases, when employees of an organization are on leave, they are not replaced. Instead, their work is divided among colleagues, deferred, or front-loaded. There is little additional cost to the employer.

Yet they still didn’t see its value. Why, they wondered, should they pay people with hard-earned charitable funds who are at home with their babies?

We found it particularly ironic that this question was being posed by Jewish nonprofit leaders heading organizations committed to social justice, community building, family, and spirituality.

Imagine the corrosive effect of telling a person who is about to have a baby: “We are taking away your salary while you are taking care of your new baby. Please get back to work quickly or you may lose out on a promotion or even lose your job.”

The breakthrough was to help them see the cognitive dissonance between the caring values they espoused in the world and the way their uncaring behaviors were negatively affecting their employees.

Over time, the CEOs in our mission-driven sector began to recognize that this abstract policy had a powerful human dimension. Many employees experienced the absence of paid leave as a personal blow, a profoundly unsupportive act in a period of professional and financial vulnerability.

We know from recent studies by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business Professor, Christine Porath, that uncivil behaviors from bosses can be toxic: they can cause employees to lose focus, be less engaged, and have health problems.

What is surprising about her research is that what she identifies as “uncivil” behaviors are not that shocking. According to Porath, employees can suffer these toxic effects when bosses walk away in the middle of conversations, take calls during meetings without leaving the room, and take credit for other people’s work.

“Insensitive interactions have a way of whittling away at people’s health, performance and souls,” Porath writes.

Informing parents that they won’t be paid while caring for their newborns takes insensitivity to a new low. It hurts parents. It hurts the relationship between a boss and employee. And it hurts the organization.

Until now, American employers have been relatively cavalier about the negative impact of uncivil work life policies on employees who are starting families and losing their salaries. In a context of economic volatility, global competition, and the rising cost of health care, expanding benefits seems counterintuitive to them.

The tech sector, and philanthropies fueled by their successes like the Gates Foundation, are notable exceptions. Apple, Google, Netflix and Microsoft, among others, are now vying to outdo one another in offering ever more generous paid leave policies as an essential tactic in attracting and retaining talent.

It might be tempting to dismiss the relevance of the tech sector as a model for the rest of America because of its relative wealth. But we know from our experience in the nonprofit sector that paid leave is affordable – and a sound investment for every organization and company, large and small.

For the last six years, we have been educating and influencing organizations in our sector about healthy work life policies through our Better Work, Better Life Campaign. Today, we are on the verge of meeting our goal of enlisting 100 Jewish nonprofits to adopt paid leave and/or flexible work arrangements.

CEOs of our organizations have reported extraordinary success in inspiring loyalty, deepening engagement and retaining valuable employees as a result of their leave policies.

For one social justice organization with a young staff and 24% turnover rate, it was daunting when ten employees – 10% of the staff – took leave in a single year. The turnover rate for these employees? Zero. All of them returned to their jobs after leave with their invaluable institutional memory and experience.

Civil organizational behavior yields great returns.

Shifra Bronznick is President of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow, and co-author of “Leveling the Playing Field.”

Hillary Leone is President of Cabengo LLC and Senior Strategist, Advancing Women Professionals.

This post originally appeared on The Huff Post Blog; reprinted with permission.