Article | 4 min read

TLDR: Zendesk adopting generous & equal parental leave benefits

By David Hanrahan

Last updated October 28, 2015

As noted elsewhere, the state of parental leave in the U.S. supremely sucks. We’re still one of only a few countries around the globe to not have paid parental leave at the federal level. A few states have a small paid leave benefit—but 47 states do not. As a recent parent myself, I can tell you that it’s incredibly important to not have to worry about whether you’ll be paid when your baby is born.

Let me say that another way. Imagine you’re expecting a child soon. You research how long you can be off work around the time the baby is born. You find out about this FMLA thing. Ah! Good. I am legally allowed to take up to 12 weeks off for my child’s birth. But wait a second. This says it’s unpaid time off. Um. I can’t exactly afford to take off 12 weeks unpaid. Let me see what my company benefit is….

Wait a second. My company says I have to use my vacation time? I only have two weeks of vacation. Or I don’t have any accrued vacation left at all. Do I need to go into debt in order to be present for the birth of my child?

This is a royally f*cked up, all too common scenario for many parents. As a society, we should want our parents to be there for the birth of their child and the period immediately following. We should want them to not worry about work or pay because their role in raising the future youth of our society is immense and that can be one of the most trying, stressful times they’ll experience. I say this with both an ethical and economical lens in mind.

The research is abundantly clear in favor of paid parental leave. Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, summarizes the research very nicely:

“Paid maternity leave is also good for business. After California instituted paid medical leave, a survey in 2011 by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that 91% of employers said the policy either boosted profits or had no effect. They also noted improved productivity, higher morale and reduced turnover.

That last point is one we’ve seen at Google. When we increased paid maternity leave…the rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50%. (We also increased paternity leave to 12 weeks from seven, as we know that also has a positive effect on families and our business.) Mothers were able to take the time they needed to bond with their babies and return to their jobs feeling confident and ready. And it’s much better for Google’s bottom line—to avoid costly turnover, and to retain the valued expertise, skills and perspective of our employees…”

Many of the companies having this realization, and taking action, are tech companies. In the midst of increased political discourse on the subject, we are starting to see more businesses voluntarily offer more generous paid parental leave benefits. While they are at times still less than the statutory entitlements in other countries around the globe, it is a good start.

However, many of these programs are structured in such a way that the maternity leave benefit is much greater than the paternity leave benefit. At first glance, many would say, “as well it should be.” But there is a latent cultural issue with this fact. It neglects the evolving role and definition of parents, e.g., what about adoptive parents? LGBT parents? How about the father raising a child on his own? Or the father whose wife works at another company where a paid leave is not available?

And isn’t it a bit culturally odd to say one parent should come back to work sooner? Taking it one step further, it seems pernicious to have a model where you tie it to gender. Not sure if that helps you when it comes to addressing a gender pay gap. Some countries are even beginning to incent (or require) the father to take the same amount of leave as the mother.

We had this discussion in our leadership team meeting recently—around our parental leave policy and what it meant as a cultural signal to our employees. Until now, we’ve had a policy of allowing moms to take 16 fully paid weeks and dads to take 4. As we chatted through all this, the sentiment was unanimous: We want to value parents equally. And we want them to have the time they need to be there for the birth of their child. That’s why we’re shifting to our Zendesk parental leave policy to allow for all Zendesk parents to take up to 16 paid weeks for the birth of their child.

Many countries go even further and we’ll, of course, adhere to the regulations where the statutory entitlement is the greater of the two. Thus, we consider this the “global floor” for our parents. And, we don’t plan on stopping there when it comes to supporting our parents and families.