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Juggling Paternal Rights and Job Duties

A new report uncovers some challenges men face when trying to make use of their company's parental-leave policies. Experts say incentives and managerial training are powerful tools to get more male workers to make use of such leave programs.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016
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As more companies offer parental-leave programs to employees who are new dads, some HR professionals may be wondering why many aren't taking advantage of this new benefit.

The answer may be found in the results of a new Deloitte online survey conducted by KRC Research last month. Of the 1,000 employees polled in the Parental Leave Pulse survey, fewer than half said their company fosters an environment in which men are comfortable taking parental leave.

Worse yet, 36 percent of men said they have no plans to use the benefit, fearing it will jeopardize their position; 57 percent stated that taking parental leave would show a lack of commitment to their job; 41 percent believed they would lose opportunities on projects and, 54 percent said their colleagues would judge a man more harshly than a woman for taking the same amount of leave.

"Talent executives need to care about this," says Deepa Purushothaman, a San Fransisco-based managing principal for women's initiatives at Deloitte. "If you don't fix it so that men and women can take full leave and feel comfortable, that they can have a family and work, you're actually not going to get the best workers."

Since societal norms often spill over into a workplace's culture, she says, simply developing a written paternity-leave policy isn't enough. HR needs to assume a leading role by resetting old norms through a multi-layered process.

For example, she says HR can encourage employees -- especially senior executives -- who return from paternity leave to share their personal stories and experiences with their peers during informal conversations, at staff meetings, on stage when conducting presentations, on social media, or even on a dedicated portal on the company's website."This is a conversation we've had for a long time, but we've had it around women," says Purushothaman, adding that HR needs to get creative. "It's not so revolutionary. Millenials are demanding it and as a result, I [believe] everyone in the workforce will demand it."

But perceptions among different generations in the workplace can create barriers to change. Consider older fathers who may never have changed diapers, says Rich Fuerstenberg, a senior consultant in the absence, disability and life solutions practice at Mercer in Princeton, N.J.

"One client told me that when HR pitched the idea of paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers, when it went up the chain of command, the CEO's response was, 'I'm not paying for a guy to have a baby,' " he says. "There's a need for employers to provide an environment in which mothers or fathers, nonbirth or birth parents, feel comfortable taking leave without jeopardizing their career, reputation, promotions or job assignments."

Sometimes, however, managers are stuck in the middle. Consider those with one or more team members out on paternity leave. Managers are still accountable for reaching specific goals but with fewer employees. So, whether they support paternity leave or not, it still hurts their work.

"Managers have been conditioned for years that when people use leave, they're taking advantage of the company," says Fuerstenberg. He notes that only 29 percent of employers provide managers with training to effectively support employees through the entire paternal leave process, according to Mercer's When Women Thrive 2016 report. "Managers need toolkits, training, awareness of program protocols and transitional approaches -- is working part time or from home OK?"

Another HR tactic is to rename parental leave as family leave. By doing so, Fuerstenberg says that employees may take leave throughout their career for a number of reasons, ranging from caring for a new baby to an elder parent, without questions or judgment by peers.

Meanwhile, he says HR needs to spend more time on how paternity-leave plans will be received by employees, administered, communicated and also measured.

"People spend so much time on plan design that they don't think of the other elements of a really successful program, which touches on how they are going to change the culture, measure success, administer and manage the program, and provide tools to employees to manage the program to ensure it's a success," says Fuerstenberg.

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Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, says the problem of men not using their paternity benefits is well-known.

She believes paternity leave must be paired with strong incentives. Consider offering flexible leave that allows male employees to take off several days a week instead of all six weeks at once, so they don't feel like they're abandoning their job or sending the signal that they're less committed to their work.

Another is forming a company-wide network or affinity group for new fathers.

"Allow them to discuss what paternity leave means for their work and also their home life and how they can manage their dual responsibilities," says Hegewisch.

However, she says no strategy will be effective if HR fails to monitor these individuals to ensure that there isn't an adverse impact on their career. Review their performance appraisal and ask questions. Are they being assigned plum projects that can advance their career? Are they receiving promotions when warranted or being overlooked, maybe even penalized? She says there are organizations such as the Center for WorkLife Law that offer practical ways for HR to help line managers monitor employees who take paternity leave.

Likewise, lack of complaints about paternity leave doesn't mean that the problem doesn't exist in the workplace.

"Imagine a man who may be able to take two months of paid paternity leave and doesn't do it because of what he fears will happen to his career," says Hegewisch. "He won't go to HR and say, 'I would like more work/life balance.' You have to do it for him."

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