Today’s family leave programs look very different than they did fifty years ago, and now more than ever the language in your Parental Leave Policy matters, especially if your goal is to attract and retain the widest range of talent. Updating your policies to be as inclusive as possible will address the evolution of what parental leave means today.
Welcoming a child into your household is a tremendous occasion, and fortunately, most companies have some form of leave available to workers to enable time for giving birth or parent-child bonding. Whether that leave is time off in accordance with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a company issued benefit, or offered through a state Paid Family Leave (PFL) program, parents are provided with a window to make the transition. The unfortunate aspect is that not all leaves are paid leaves because some states don’t offer it, and in other cases some employers don’t either. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2021 that 89% of American workers had access to unpaid family leave, while only 23% had access to some form of paid family leave. While this gap has created an opportunity for employers to offer paid leave benefits to attract and retain people, most employers are ill-equipped to understand and write policies that are compliant with regulations, as well as inclusive, to address the evolution of what parental leave means today.
Today’s family leave programs look very different than they did fifty years ago. And different than it did when the FMLA was introduced in 1993. The traditionally named ‘nuclear’ family with 2.3 children, a dog and a cat, has evolved to include almost any group that loves and cares for one another, and because of that, the importance of addressing the language in your policies can’t be underscored enough. Whether your organization offers paid or unpaid leave benefits, the language of your policy matters to be as inclusive as possible to attract and retain the widest range of talent.
Businesses generally craft policies with overflowing legal language and jargon. The issue is that in doing so, it becomes very difficult for employees to understand what they actually cover. And when those employees are unable to identify themselves within those policies, those businesses are actually doing a disservice in providing those employees with a better experience – especially when those employees are dealing with some sort of life event.
For example, using language such as “maternity leave” in a policy suggests the leave is reserved for women who give birth to a child. It doesn’t allow for surrogacy; placement of a child in adoptive or foster care; or for employees who don’t identify as a woman. Similarly, using the term “paternity leave” in a policy suggests it’s reserved for fathers: the term suggesting a direct biological connection. While these terms may seem benign, directly or by omission they may exclude employees from using the benefit or even believing it applies to them. Terms like this used in a company policy can also raise issues with Title VII, if, for example, a male employee perceives the policy as offering richer baby bonding time to female employees.
Inclusive language acknowledges that we are individuals, not cogs in the corporate wheel. It underscores our commitment to employees from all walks of life and their worth to the organization. But more, inclusive language promotes equitable opportunities. When everyone is on a level playing field, no one is excluded.
Job seekers and employees want to work for organizations that share their values. Diversity, equity and inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B) are at the forefront of social change. Recently, the Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey found just how important inclusion is to staff. For millennials, 74% believe a company is more innovative when it has a culture of inclusion. The data supports their belief: McKinsey research shows companies with high levels of gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform their peers: ethnically-diverse companies are 35% more likely.
Deloitte also found 47% of millennials and Gen Z actively look for diversity and inclusion when considering potential employers. A Glassdoor survey found 79% of LGBTQ job seekers and employees call a diverse workforce an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers. This is why so many companies consider DEI&B initiatives top of mind. If you’re looking to attract and retain top talent, addressing the values of diversity and inclusion are key.
So what should employers do to ensure the language in their policies are as inclusive as possible. Here are some suggestions to consider:
‘Employee’ is an excellent replacement for much of your language because it puts all staff members on equal footing. If they work for the company, no matter their gender or parental identity, they’re eligible for the benefit. Replace with language that includes, as you look for language that excludes.
If your family leave policy home page has pictures of families – make sure they represent diverse families. A neutral choice might be to include only images of babies (who can resist) or no images at all. Language is important, but so are the optics.
Another area to consider is pregnancy loss. Whether it’s the cessation of an employee’s pregnancy or one of a surrogate or potentially adoptive child, provide time for parents to grieve. Even if you have a bereavement policy in place, a best practice may be to include pregnancy loss in your leave policy to provide employees time off if the worst occurs.
Begin or end your policy with specifically inclusive language. To emphasize that leave benefits are for all staff members, you may want to be explicit. ‘This policy applies to all employees without regard to gender, gender identity, marital status, or family structure.’ If benefits are available only to full-time staff or staff members who have satisfied a tenure period, you’ll want to include that qualification.
Ultimately, a culture of inclusion and the policies that support it are critical to business. To assure your organization is the welcoming workplace you and your employees want it to be, look to update policies for today’s workforce. If you haven’t made any changes, you may not have looked at your leave policy in decades. It’s time to dust it off and update. Parental leave is a sought-after benefit for candidates and workers. You’ll want yours to include every potential parent or caregiver to underscore that everyone is welcome and valued in your organization.