Here's the biggest challenge faced by Netflix's new 'unlimited parental leave' policy -- and how to make it work

On Tuesday, Netflix announced its new unlimited parental leave policy. The idea, Netflix’s Chief Talent Officer Tawni Cranz wrote on the company blog, is to allow new parents — both mums and dads — to “take as much time off as they want during the first year after a child’s birth or adoption.”

Instead of a fixed number of consecutive weeks off followed by a definitive return to the office — the standard model, though the number of weeks can vary — Netflix will allow employees to leave and then “return part-time, full-time, or return and then go back out as needed.”

If the plan works as it’s supposed to, each employee simply “figure[s] out what’s best for them and their family,” and then “works with their managers for coverage during their absences.”

In theory, this should mean that employees won’t have to choose between a career and a kid, can keep one foot in the workforce during their absence, and won’t suffer the kind of tacit demotion women tend to encounter upon their returns.

It sounds great — or it would sound great if anyone actually takes it. But if we’ve learned anything from the proliferation of unlimited vacation policies, it is this: Theory does not equal practice, and unlimited vacation policies don’t work. Removing specific, official policies — two weeks of vacation, twelve weeks of parental leave — replaces “clear, predictable limits with limits imposed by vague and arbitrary social pressure to work more,” argues Vox’s Dylan Matthews.

Research bears this out: People often don’t take advantage of their unlimited vacation, and when they do, their colleagues resent them for it. Worth noting here: Netflix has long had an unlimited vacation policy. (So does Business Insider.)

Obviously, parental leave is not vacation, and having a baby is not a trip to Cancun. But it’s easy to imagine the same dynamic playing out here: a supposedly freeing policy becomes a fraught minefield of vulnerability and resentment. “If that new mum down the hall came back full-time after only six weeks of leave,” wonders L.V. Anderson at Slate, “will you look like a slacker if you take four months and ramp back up with a three-day-a-week schedule?”

Reed hastings netflixElizabeth Fuentes/GettyNetflix cofounder and CEO Reed Hastings.

And yet the basic problem Netflix is admirably trying to address is real: People have lives outside of work. National policy has historically been extremely bad at dealing with that (the US, it should be noted, is one of two countries that does not require employers to offer paid parental leave, according to a report from the International Labour Organisation). And women in particular have been been held back by our inability to figure this out. There has to be a way to do better.

It is hard to fault Netflix for trying. “The spirit of [the policy],” says Jennifer Owens, editorial director at Working Mother, “is in the right spot.” The challenge, she tells Business Insider, will be “creating a company culture that actually supports usage.”

Santa Clara University professor Justin P. Boren, whose own work focuses on organizational culture and work-life issues, thinks it’s possible the company could pull this off — if it can manage two key things:

  1. It successfully creates a culture where people actually take the “unlimited” time off.
  2. It extends similar flexibility to everyone.

The first point is relatively straightforward — the policy is meaningless unless Netflix can create an environment where people not only know that it’s “acceptable to take that time off,” Boren tells Business Insider, but also that “it’s frowned upon when you don’t.”

“Organisations are great at making the policy shift, but the cultural shift is the hard part,” he says. Owens agrees. “I think the best thing that can happen is that some men at the top take an extended paternity leave. That should not be outside of the realm of imagination.” Once the policy is put into place, it needs to be modelled, it needs to be modelled at the top, and it needs to be modelled by men at the top.

If accountant Carl is just as likely to be out with the baby as marketing director Carla and neither has to offramp longer than they’d like to in order to raise their child, then Netflix may be making real strides toward gender parity in the workplace. But that’s only true if men actually take equal advantage of the policy — and what we’ve seen elsewhere is that they don’t.

Boren’s second proposal is more radical: Don’t limit flexibility to new parents. Based on his extensive studies of workplace resentments, Boren argues that one problem with an unlimited parental leave policy is the perceived unfairness of it. People with babies get official acknowledgment that they’re multi-faceted humans with lives outside of work; people without babies are expected to lead blissful lives unencumbered by family responsibilities.

Of course, one possible understanding of Netflix’s already unlimited vacation policy is that it exists precisely for occasions like a sick parent or mental health emergency — if you need the time, official policy says you can take the time. But Boren suggests that while that’s technically true, it’s not the same. “The big difference is that the parental leave policy has a clear triggering event — in this case, either a birth or an adoption,” he says, and that lends it some degree of legitimacy.

Extending some incarnation of broader flexible leave policies would obviously benefit the people who need to take advantage of them. But they’d also benefit new parents by mitigating the resentment parents often face when they do go back to work (Can you believe we’ve all been covering for Sarah for six months?).

And while I’m speculating here, it seems like a more even distribution of leave benefits could actually help parents — especially female parents — fight the kind of tacit discrimination that happens when your bosses are expecting you’ll offramp at some point for some period of nurturing months. How can you really be devoted to that big project when obviously you’re cooking up a big project of your own? (Har, har.)

But if leave were extended beyond new parents — to people caring for ageing parents, for troubled siblings and sick spouses and older children in crisis and even, perhaps, their own mental or physical health — it seems possible that the penalty for parenting would be drastically reduced. It’s possible there still would be a penalty for taking these leaves, but at least it wouldn’t be a parent penalty, or a woman penalty. It would be the penalty of being human.

Business Insider has reached out to Netflix for comment. We will update this post if we hear back.

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