What most companies get wrong about parental leave

Feb 22, 2022

The four most common mistakes, and what to do instead.

When we first set out to build Parentaly, we spoke to dozens of HR teams and hundreds of parents about their experiences with parental leave.

The parents we spoke with were largely of greater privilege — they worked in a corporate environment, received above-average incomes, and started their families later than average (typically 30+ years old). The majority of them worked for companies that I would categorize as very supportive of parents.

In other words: these employers really did want to retain parents, and they were spending a lot of time and money to do so. They did many things “right.” 

But more surprising to us was how often we saw these companies do a few key things “wrong.”

We realized that the problem must not be with individual companies — it must be something bigger. There was such a disconnect between what these parents were telling us they wanted — or what they felt would be supportive to them — and what these hundreds of (very parent-friendly) companies were doing. 

And so we offer this guidance in the hopes that managers and HR teams will better understand — and avoid — these four common mistakes that companies make when it comes to parental leave. 

Mistake #1: “We don’t want you to work while you are on parental leave.” 

Almost every single employer of the parents we spoke with had varying degrees of this message, ranging from strict policies that require anyone on parental leave to disconnect their email, to informal comments from managers or HR strongly discouraging any form of work while on leave.

Why this is wrong: Parents don’t like to be required to disconnect completely, and in many scenarios, disconnecting completely while out can have very negative implications for the parents’ career trajectory. They miss key opportunities to have their voice heard. They get way behind on major company updates. If they can’t read their email, it could take weeks upon their return simply to dig themselves out of an email hole. And for some parents, they actually enjoy passively staying up to date on work while they are on parental leave. 

What you should do instead: Set the expectation that as a company we do not expect you to work while you are on leave, but if you feel that having some degree of communication will make you feel much better while on leave we are happy to work with you to define that! This may include: passively reading your emails (with no expectation that you will reply) while out, or defining a list of key topics you’d like to be consulted on, or even just updated on while you are out. The key here is to let the parent define their own plan. If they want to have no communication, that is fine. If they want to have some contact, that is also fine. If they go so far as to propose a plan that involves real, active and time-bound work, their manager should be wary of this and engage in deeper conversation because that defies the point of parental leave. But there are so many creative ways for parents to maintain a very limited level of communication with work that dramatically improves their re-entry process.


Mistake #2: Focusing only on the return experience, but not the pre-leave experience. 

A lot of companies have really great programs to improve the return-to-work experience. This ranges from providing parents with access to specialist providers (lactation consultants, therapists) to flexible re-entry programs, to even things like spa treatments and date night. More companies are also now providing critical backup childcare support. But, the perplexing part to us while we were developing our business was seeing how little most companies do before someone goes on leave.

Why this is wrong: If someone goes on leave and their piece of the business falters, all the re-entry benefits and free services will not make up for the fact that they now have a major obstacle in front of them. We think of this like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — first, the parent needs to be healthy and have a healthy baby. Second, they need to return to work that is not in disarray. Only once that is achieved do these other benefits make a difference. Not helping expecting parents prepare to be gone for 3–6 months is a big mistake. It is hard to put together a coverage plan that works, and employees need support for this.

What you should do instead: Invest more time and money in pre-leave planning and services. Build this in-house or work with someone like us at Parentaly, or even just provide employees with a career coach. This is an incredibly transformative and scary time for most employees and this is when they need extra support. Plus, the ROI is instant: they are effectively doing “succession planning” (albeit with the goal to return) which greatly improves business results.


Mistake #3: Applying the same definition of “flexibility” to everyone. 

Yes, almost every parent needs to leave by 5:30pm to relieve the childcare provider. But not everyone wants the other more common “flexible” arrangements including reduced travel, part-time work, or extensive work-from-home.

Why this is wrong: Making sweeping generalizations about what a new parent wants is particularly damaging to mothers, who we have seen are especially hurt by the Motherhood Penalty. Some aspects of flexibility mentioned above could have negative repercussions on a woman’s career, and it should be her choice to engage in that conversation about flexibility.

What you should do instead: Having flexibility options as a company policy is great and necessary — but companies need to educate managers on how to engage in this conversation with new parents. Managers should never make assumptions, and instead they should present the options and explicitly ask the new parent what would make them happier and more successful at work.


Mistake #4: Forgetting that the first month back is “onboarding” to the company — not jumping right back in. 

As most new parents can attest, that first month back at work can be brutal. You’re stressed and sad about leaving your baby for the first time. You might be thrilled to finally be around adults, but you’re anxious about how hard it will be to get back into things. You’ve missed some critical moments at the company and are confused about priorities, progress and goals. And your manager is likely thrilled that you’re back — and is ready to have you dive in!

Why this is wrong: Diving in too fast will result in suboptimal work, and could be very demotivating for a new parent.

What you should do instead: Managers need to treat the new parent almost the same as a new hire. They should go through a customized version of “re-onboarding” that is thoughtful and intentional. Carve out time for the new parent to have coffee chats with peers, direct reports and other stakeholders simply to informally catch up. Block time for reviewing and replying to all old emails. Do not start any new projects (if possible) until after a few weeks back at work.

The four mistakes highlighted here are very common, and usually the result of the best of intentions. 

The good news? All four mistakes are easily avoided and/or solved as long as companies and managers acknowledge and understand them.