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Are Family Leave Policies a Good Thing

Yahoo’s CEO extends Family Leave Policy after Giving Birth

Last month Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer extended the paid parental leave policy of the company for both new mothers and fathers at Yahoo who can now take eight weeks of paid parental leave, and the mothers can take an additional eight weeks. What's more, new parents will also receive $500 to buy items like groceries and baby clothes.

It's part of a slate of new benefits "to support the happiness and well-being of Yahoos and their families," the company confirmed via email. Mayer was undoubtedly influenced by her own experience giving birth while serving as the CEO.

These policies are nothing new for Silicon Valley companies including Google that offers seven weeks of paid leave for parents who did not give birth, while new mothers can take off between 18 to 22 weeks. Facebook offers four paid months for both parents and $4,000 in "baby cash."

The question I raise in this blog is how employees who do not meet the requirements of the policy feel about their co-workers receiving liberal paid leaves.

In a research study, published in the April 2013 issue of the Southern Communication Journal, Justin Boren, a professor at Santa Clara University, and co-author Shannon Johnson of James Madison University, explore messages of peer resentment expressed in the workplace and the perceived likelihood of making use of work/family policies. In their national survey of 474 workers, the authors found that many workers reported overhearing resentment messages from co-workers. Things like “I resent my colleagues who make use of work-family policies” and “I can’t stand when other people get to use policies for leave, and I don’t.” As a result, many workers said they would feel guilty for taking their full complement of benefits, if it meant leaving their colleagues to “pick up the slack.”

Often, Boren says, the resentment stems from subtle, unstated expectations about performance and production. These statements are sometimes embedded in the culture of the organization.

“The stress of trying to balance work life and family life is really exacerbated when colleagues say that you are letting the team down if you take your legal or company-granted benefits,” said Boren, an expert on social support in organizations.

The research also found:

*Those who were approaching or who had reached job burnout, were less likely to take advantage of the policies often in place to help prevent burnout

*A lack of support from peers has a tremendous effect on one’s feeling that they can legitimately take time off.

*Organizations that enhance co-worker support and set clear expectations of the value of making use of work/family policies could have lower reports of burnout and more engaged employees.

From an ethical perspective, the fairness doctrine holds that equals should be treated equally and unequal’s unequally. The Google policy allowing for paid leave for those employees who don’t give birth seems directed by the notion of trying to be fair to all.

It has been said that fairness is in the eyes of the beholder. So, it depends on whether you view fairness from the perspective of an employee who just gave birth or their spouse who just gave birth. The question is should they be treated differently in this circumstance than those without birthing considerations?

On the other hand, should all employees be treated the same regardless of birthing situations? One concern with family leave is why not make such distinctions based on other factors such as general health, in fairness to all? If an employee has a serious condition, and sick leave and vacation leave doesn’t cover the amount of time needed to adequately recover (i.e., cancer/radiation/chemotherapy), then why not extend the paid leave days in such a case?

The other side of the issue is where does it stop? Can we, in reality, make choices on leave policy that are fair to all employees? I think not. Maternity leave has become so important because both parents frequently work so that concessions have to be made in those situations.

I have a daughter with a one-year old and I see how hard it is on her without family nearby for support and how it helped so much in the first two months when her husband had maternity leave. It’s not only bonding time with the new baby, but also brings the two parents closer together as they learn to work as a team especially in those precious first two months. In the end, I believe it enhances the likelihood of having a harmonious family life that is best for the baby in the long-run and may even improve employee performance.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 22, 2013