Could Amazon's new parental-leave policy improve the company's 'bruising' workplace culture?

Lean In Work From Home Woman BabyGetty/Lean In/Tara MooreInstituting generous parental-leave policies isn’t enough.

Amazon, a company once notorious for eschewing popular perks, from free snacks to paid paternity leave, announced this week a shift in policy for its employees, including those working in its fulfillment centres and customer service.

Starting in 2016, the online retailer will offer 20 weeks of paid leave to new birth mothers and six weeks to other parents, including fathers.

Parents at Amazon can share up to six weeks of their parental leave with a partner who doesn’t have paid leave through his or her employer. This novel program means Amazon employees can return to work — and go back to receiving their regular base pay — but still receive parental leave pay while their partner takes the helm at home.

And the company’s new “Ramp Back Program” allows birth mothers and primary caregivers eight weeks of flexible time upon returning to work.

The news comes nearly three months after The New York Times published its scathing exposé of the company’s workplace culture, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.”

It’s unclear if the move is a reaction to that article. In its memo to employees, Amazon says the company reviews its benefit programs annually and began considering leave policies in early 2015. However, the move could undo some of the damage to Amazon’s reputation.

The tech giant is also catching up to other companies like Google, Netflix, and Microsoft, which are making extended parental-leave policies the industry standard.

So if the allegations of a “bruising” workplace culture are true, could the company’s new parental-leave policy improve the company’s workplace problems?

It’s complicated.

As The Times’ article said, former employees described a workplace culture where people got nudged out of their jobs after taking time off for life events and illness, including cancer and miscarriages.

Three former employees who took time off to care for their own or a family member’s cancer described receiving low performance ratings or being told they were “a problem.”

Another employee talked about miscarrying twins and leaving for a business trip the day after surgery. She told The Times that her boss had said to her, “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”

“Several fathers said they left or were considering quitting because of pressure from bosses or peers to spend less time with their families,” The Times reported. It also noted that Amazon employees last, on average, one year — the second-highest turnover rate of all the Fortune 500 companies — according to a 2013 study from PayScale.

“When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” one former employee said.

As we’ve written about, instituting generous parental-leave policies isn’t enough. For people to use them, a company also needs to create a workplace culture where taking the necessary time off is encouraged. Consider Facebook and Netflix, where leaders openly try to set good work-life balance examples.

While Amazon rejects the Times’ portrayal of its workplace culture, if the reports are accurate, creating this new culture there would require a turnaround — one that would take a long time, says Stewart Friedman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the founding director of the school’s Work/Life Integration Project.

“This is not going to happen overnight with a parental-leave policy that’s more generous,” he tells Business Insider.

Lotte Baiylin, a professor of management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of “Breaking the Mould: Redesigning Work for Productive and Satisfying Lives,” told us the new policy “won’t cure anything unless the head boss takes advantage of the policy and advertises that — that could possibly begin to make a change.”

Another key to making the shift work is talking about it the right way, Friedman says. Executives need to encourage the alignment of values and actions.

Not everyone’s values will be the same in a company, Friedman adds. There will be Amazon employees who are happy with their work. But for those who value time spent with their families, they need to know that what they value is aligned with what they do.

“It comes down to the reasons you provide, the words you use, the language you convey to explain why you’re doing this and what you expect other to do,” Friedman says.

Ultimately the answer lies with Amazon executives, who know whether or not they want to see the culture change.

“It seems to me that, given its growth, impact, and dominance, there are a lot of things working really well,” Friedman says. “I don’t know that there’s a high motivation to do things differently.”

Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through hispersonal investment company Bezos Expeditions.

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