After his daughter’s 5 a.m. feeding during the first few months after she was born, Adam Isserlis would lie back in bed with his newborn child resting on his chest, and the two would doze off together. Thanks to Facebook’s parental-leave policy, the first-time father says he enjoyed innumerable “magical” moments like these that helped him foster a bond with his new daughter.
“I say this all the time, but, at least in my perspective, I think it’s one of the best benefits that Facebook offers,” says Isserlis, a manager of corporate communications at Facebook who took leave following the birth of his daughter in December 2013.
Since the US is the only developed nation that doesn’t require companies to provide mothers or fathers any paid parental leave, recent moves by some of the country’s biggest tech companies present a radical shift in the workplace that may dictate the future.
Netflix is now offering unlimited paid time off for a year to new parents; Microsoft will provide 20 weeks of fully paid maternity leave and 12 weeks for new fathers; and Adobe will be offering 26 weeks of paid maternity leave and 16 weeks of paid paternity leave for birth and adoptive parents.
But long before it was trendy, Facebook was offering four months of paid leave, regardless of gender or birthing means, to new parents within the first year of birth or placement. The company has cultivated a culture where it’s taboo not to take the full four months or for dads to take less than mums.
It provides a compelling case study for how to make these policies work, and with increasing competition for talent and pressure from millennials for flexible workplaces, every company in the US should be paying attention.
“I know of people that have two or three days off, or a week off, and then they have to go back to work while they’re still learning how to be a parent. And I’m not saying that you learn how to be a parent in a month or four months, but you certainly learn more than you do in a week or two days,” Isserlis says.
“We hear from our people that it really matters to them, they care about it, and take it, which is fantastic,” Lori Goler, head of human resources at Facebook, tells Business Insider.
In fact, employees at Facebook love the policy so much that they rate it a resounding five out of five stars on Glassdoor, a workplace ratings and review site.
“I just feel really lucky that that was one less stressor I had in my life. And I think it was huge,” Isserlis says.
So what does Facebook get right with its policy that other companies could emulate? A few things.
For many, it all comes down to culture: If you don’t have a philosophy built around taking care of your people, it may never work.
When Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Facebook’s vice president of the 600-person ads and pages team, welcomed his son Archer Americus in November 2014, he got snide remarks from his colleagues.
They were ripping him for taking only two months off. He had to explain he was actually taking the full leave, just not all at once.
Stewart Friedman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, previously told Business Insider that when he studied unlimited-vacation policies, the main issue he saw was employees’ fear of using vacation days and looking less committed than their colleagues.
For many, this isn’t too surprising. In the American workplace, the culture is to work hard, then work even harder, pay your dues, stay late, and, at all costs, sacrifice family time to get ahead because apparently that’s what everyone else does.
At Facebook, the culture is quite the contrary.
“Our overall philosophy in terms of our benefits is that we want to take care of the people who work at Facebook and the people who matter most to them,” Goler says.
To the outside world, Facebook’s policy of four months paid leave for mothers and fathers may seem radical, but to people at Facebook you’d be crazy not to take it.
Bosworth says taking four months leave was never a question for him.
“Now that I’ve had a child, it’s absolutely mind-boggling that somebody wouldn’t take it. Especially a first child,” he says. “I mean, the degree of transformation that your life undergoes in such a short period of time — it’s pretty staggering, and it just takes time to get used to it.”
For Bosworth, this transformation included working fewer hours than before Archer was born, enjoying his baby’s first laughs, an evolving routine, and being able to focus on special projects.
A policy that has proved popular at Facebook allows new parents to structure their time off however they like.
“It’s easier for my wife to break it up a little bit than to have me be there for four months and then eight months on her own,” Bosworth says.
The new father chose to take two months off up front and reserved one month for the summer and one month for the fall.
Isserlis similarly split his parental leave. He says that new parents can never get those first few months with a child back, so it seemed shortsighted for him to worry more about missing out on work than the first year of his daughter’s life.
“That’s the way this was presented to me here at Facebook,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Things will come and go, and we’ll handle them, we’ll deal with them, but you should be with your family’ — that’s a really important and wonderful thing.”
To create a culture that embraces taking time off, the policies need to be equal for men and women.
The bad news is that American fathers surveyed by Boston College’s Center for Work and Family take, on average, only two weeks’ leave. What’s more, only about 12% of American companies offer paid parental leave, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
“It’s tragic some people don’t have the option,” Bosworth says.
The more encouraging news is that 89% of men surveyed said it was important for employers to provide paid paternity or paid parental leave. But nearly the same percentage of the men surveyed also said they wouldn’t use paternity leave or parental leave unless they were paid at least 70% of their normal salaries.
When fathers take time off, everyone benefits
Numerous studies have shown that paid paternity leave can help foster better father-child relationships, and the more leave fathers take, the more mothers’ incomes increase.
And the benefits go even further.
At Facebook there’s no maternity or paternity leave, only parental leave. It’s one of the few US companies to offer equal time off to mums and dads, something the company has done since its early days.
“The more that the men can take leave, the more of a social norm it is,” Goler says.
When companies view their leave policies in terms of gender, they can add to the stigma that the burden of caregiving falls more on the mother. Without terms like “maternity” and “paternity” leave, it’s easier for men and women at Facebook to equally take the time they need.
What’s more, Bosworth believes that Facebook’s equal-leave benefits could lead to a nationwide change, while not offering equal benefits leads to discrimination against women.
In fact, as reported by The New York Times in May, studies have shown that when a company’s policy mandates that women take longer leaves than men, the same companies are more inclined to hire men over women and are less likely to promote women to high-powered positions.
Experts agree that perhaps the best policies for helping working families are the ones that are gender-neutral.
“It has to become something that humans do, as opposed to something that women do,” Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress, told The Times.
“By implementing equal leave to both parties, you’re really creating a great example, and you’re eliminating a potential in the system to favour one over the other,” Bosworth says.
Facebook’s leave policy “sort of encouraged having equality at work, and I feel like it’s sort of created even more equality in my life at home,” Isserlis says.
“My wife and I are true, equal partners when it comes to raising our daughter every day. It’s not an expectation that my wife is going to be home every day, or that I’m going to be home every day. It’s like, we pick, ‘OK, who’s gonna do this, when?’ ‘OK, you’ll do the bath,’ ‘I’ll do this, you do the feeding.’ And I think that if in the beginning I had just not been around at all and my wife had done everything in learning to raise our daughter, that might have been different,” he says.
Taking full parental leave from the top is key to seeing it trickle down.
People at Facebook are passionate about what they do, Bosworth says, so it’s natural for parents to feel like they will miss out on their work.
Isserlis considered leaving his work behind as a personal challenge for two reasons.
“One side is you think, ‘I can’t go because there’s so much I’m doing and there’s so much important stuff that’s going on, and if I go then what if things don’t get done, and I feel bad for my team, and what about this and what about that?’
“And there’s the other side of you that’s equally as important and equally as loud that says, ‘Well, what if you go and what if everything is fine, does that mean, you know, you’re not needed?'” he says.
As a leader of a team of about 600, Bosworth strongly encourages all his dads and mums to take their full leave. It’s all about making the right guarantee, he says.
“You say, ‘Look, this is guaranteed not to affect your career — not just by law, but by the way Facebook operates,” he says.
“You know, we have a tremendously deep respect for people building their families,” Bosworth says. “It’s the most important thing for society. So you gotta take the conflicts out of it.”
Bosworth is well known throughout Facebook for his positive time-off outlook; he even wrote a blog post in April titled “Take Longer Vacations” in which he explained that the true test of a leader is how long they can be away from work.
“It’s really irresponsible for any member of the company, parent or otherwise, to have information or an ability that [nobody else has], because that means it’s a liability to the company,” he says. “If you’re a single point of failure, especially in an engineering organisation like Facebook, that’s strictly a bad thing.”
At Facebook, “You don’t want anyone saying, ‘Hey, we can’t do anything without that guy,’ because that means you haven’t done enough,” Bosworth explains.
Isserlis says, “From the top to the bottom, I think the nice thing is, the leaders of the company are the ones who are pushing it the most because they know there’s a responsibility there.”
“Whether it was my boss or someone that reported to me, or someone not even on my team who was just asking for advice, I would tell them, ‘Your career will go on — hopefully it will be a great career here at Facebook — but we’re nothing but supportive, and you’re not going to get this time back. If you don’t take the time and you knew that you had it, you’re going to look back in six months or a year and I think you might regret it,'” he says.
Bosworth acknowledges that people often fear being away and losing traction, but in his experience the opposite effect happens after returning from parental leave.
“I’m probably doing better work in less time,” he says. “I hear that repeated often among my peers and among my reports, which is nice. And I think there’s some value there that’s hard to capture.”
With the recent news that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is expecting his first child with his wife, Priscilla Chan, it will be interesting to see if the policy reaches the very top.
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