byGeorgene Huangon Jun 24, 2015

Why Companies Don't Publish Their Maternity Leave Policies

Photo credit:Fairygodboss

Nobody has ever been able to adequately explain why company benefits are such a secret.  Why are some companies comfortable posting their entire employee handbook online, while others remain completely mum?  Worse, why do some companies make it so hard for their own employees to find this information?

We’ve talked to Fairygodboss members who work for companies large and small.  And they’ve shared a wide range of stories with us about how they discovered their company’s maternity leave or short-term disability policies (if any).  The story that touched us the most was from a member who worked at a large Fortune 100 company.  All our members are anonymous, so let’s call her Amy at Acme Inc.

Amy is in her late 20’s, and has worked quite happily for a few years at Acme.  She decides to investigate her company’s maternity policy because she's curious and a bit of a planner.  Amy is not pregnant and she's not even married, but she recently got engaged.

Amy is confident that Acme offers a great maternity leave package.  After all, Acme publicly states its commitment to a wide range of women’s causes, provides employees with diversity groups, and there are a large number of women in her department.  Amy starts by searching through her company’s intranet portal to find the employee handbook and benefits information.  This isn’t exactly easy or pleasant.  (Trust us if you’ve never personally had the pleasure of exploring corporate intranet portals.  For some reason they appear stuck in the 1990’s and are not places that have seen the touch of UI and UX talent.)

Amy keeps looking and can’t find anything.  So she calls her HR representative and asks where the benefits information is located.  The HR representative tells her to look on the intranet where Amy has already been.  Then the HR rep asks, “What exactly are you looking for?”  Amy hesitates now.  Women all know that asking about maternity leave is akin to “coming out of the closet” (even though Amy isn’t pregnant or even imminently planning to be).  But Amy takes a breath, and tells her.  She figures that even if the HR rep will make certain incorrect assumptions, she’ll at least get a straight answer.

No such luck.  Amy’s HR rep tells her that she must speak to another person in HR who specializes in this area.  Amy is now really confused and intrigued.  She dials the specialist who asks her whether she’s pregnant.  Amy says she isn’t.  And then the specialist says something about disability benefits that Amy doesn’t really understand.  Amy continues to listen until it dawns on her that Acme may not actually offer any paid parental leave.  She hangs up, stunned.

Amy can’t believe that Acme doesn't offer paid maternity leave.  She wonders if she's being naiive because she has heard that paid leave is a relatively rare thing.  It just seems at odds with Acme's size, profitability, philanthropy and PR.  Amy would better understand if she were a new employee, a part-time employee, a contractor or any other number of things.  She’s not even a particularly junior employee.  Acme is such a huge company with generous benefits and perks in almost every other area.  Is this something that just applies to her or her group?

Amy decides she needs to get the dirt from her colleagues, directly.  Even if that means exposing her personal life and plans (which she really doesn’t want to do).  She first approaches the mothers in her department.  One by one, through these conversations, Amy’s colleagues confirm that Acme doesn’t offer paid maternity leave.  However, they also reveal that they all actually took fully paid time off (which was not offered under the company’s short-term disability policy).  The reason the mothers in Amy’s department were able to do this is that their manager looked the other way and simply didn’t report their post-partum, quarter-long absence.  In other words, Amy’s department made up for the lack of maternity leave benefits by covering for each other.

Amy loves working with her team, and has always felt like her colleagues were a second “family” of sorts.  But this was way beyond what she expected to hear.  And while she loved the fact that the team pitched in for each other, she was shocked that nobody had tried to petition for paid leave, or at least easier access to the disability pay information.  Its never easy to make noise and risk standing out as a trouble-maker, but Amy decided the situation wasn’t acceptable and started to bring the issue up the HR corporate ladder, and to Acme’s women’s group leaders.

We’re not sure how the story ends because Amy is still right in the middle of it.  But most elements of Amy’s story aren’t as rare as you might think.  Many women don’t know their company’s maternity policies until they actually get pregnant. Until then, most large company employees assume the maternity leave will be fair, or at the very least, easy to get straight answers about.  We've all seen the press about generous company policies at places like Goldman Sachs and Google but we can’t all work there!  And even companies offering reasonable benefits don’t make it easy to uncover what they actually are without exposing oneself to assumptions or your personal life.

We all know that becoming pregnant is life-changing and fraught with issues for many professional women.  Many women — including myself — have “hidden” their pregnancies for as long as possible, by breaking the news at the last moment because they are team players and know the impact their absence will have.  Working mothers often worry about their reputation and colleagues' perceptions of their professional commitment in the face of their personal responsibilities. Asking about maternity leave is just the tip of the iceberg.

So please do us a favor.  If you are a manager or work in HR, consider being more transparent about company benefits — even if its just to your own employees.


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