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August 11, 2015 / Molly Moseley

Does unlimited parental leave actually mean less time off?

shutterstock_264577595Did you know that the U.S. is one of only three countries that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave? According to a story published by ABC News earlier this year, the United States joins only Papua New Guinea and Suriname in this dismal standing. Are you outraged? If not, you should be.

That’s why it’s so important to celebrate companies like Netflix who are helping change the discussion and their own policies on parental leave in America.

In case you missed it, last week Netflix announced that it will offer unlimited paid parental leave (Yep, that’s both moms and dads) in the first year of a child’s life or first year following an adoption. Netflix based this decision presumably on good business sense, a desire to attract and retain top employees, simple human decency and the drive to be a benefits trailblazer. We are very excited about this move, but the reality is that not every business is in a position to do what Netflix has done, and the results they intend to produce may not actually materialize.

The obvious worry is that workers will abuse unlimited vacation or family leave policies and take more time than before, negatively impacting productivity. The less obvious concern is that if such policies aren’t clearly defined, communicated and culturally accepted, there’s actually a greater risk that employees will take less leave.

“In terms of recruiting the most talented employees, unlimited parental leave is undoubtedly a very unique and attractive selling point for Netflix,” says Ben Hutt, CEO of The Search Party, an online recruitment marketplace. “However, this policy could also be dangerous because without regulation, high-performing employees may choose to come back to work right away, rather than spending the much-needed time with their families.”

Rebecca Honeyman, senior vice president and managing director in New York City for Hotwire PR, agrees: “The reality is that such policies are difficult to communicate to employees, and can often result in people taking less leave than they would if the company had a structured policy with clear limits on the available paid and unpaid time off.”

So what’s the take-away from Netflix’s announcement? While there’s no denying that America’s parental leave policies need some significant overhauling, keep these key points in mind before you take the plunge:

  • Like unlimited vacation time (which we recently blogged about), unlimited parental leave isn’t going to be practical for every company.
  • Experience shows such policies can backfire, prompting employees to take less leave because they worry taking more time off will make them look bad to their bosses and co-workers. Leadership buy-in and support are absolutely crucial to  cultural adoption.
  • Such policies need to be carefully defined and consistently implemented, otherwise you also risk being unfair to employees who have no children or whose kids are older.

Great benefits are a vital tool for attracting and keeping great employees. And there’s no denying that unlimited parental leave has the potential to be a fantastic benefit. If your company is considering following the lead of others like Netflix, it’s important to understand if unlimited parental leave will fit your corporate culture and business model, and to ensure your eligible employees really get the time they deserve.