Men Need Work/Life Balance, Too

Paternity leave proves to be a potent benefit for today’s working fathers.

By Mike Ramsey November 1, 2014
1114-Cover.gifMichael Blum’s experience as a new working dad isn’t typical. Two years ago, when he welcomed his third child, it was a given that he would take time off to be with his wife and newborn. It was also understood that he wouldn’t lose income or vacation days in the process.

His employer, Zeeland, Mich.-based office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller Inc., offers fathers two weeks of paid paternity leave after the birth or adoption of a child. During his absence from work, Blum helped care for his two older children while his spouse got her strength back.

“It was one of those benefits that you almost can’t quantify because you don’t know how you’d do without it,” the 36-year-old e-commerce manager says. “We have some family that’s close, so we would have made it. But it was just great to be able to be home and help out and be part of the bonding.”

Things were different for Philadelphia-based copywriter Nick Browne. His employer doesn’t offer paid paternity leave, so he used two weeks of vacation time last year when his second daughter was born. His bosses let him work from home an additional two weeks, under a flexible-work arrangement.

“I wanted to make a compromise that worked for everybody,” says Browne, 32, who blogs about fatherhood at

Just as more women are assuming the role of breadwinner in their relationships than they have in the past, a growing number of men are playing integral roles in child care and housework, sometimes even serving as primary caregivers. But while men today may have different roles than their dads did, employers are lagging when it comes to supporting them with policies that promote better work/life balance. Indeed, statistics suggest that most male employees are like Browne and must find workarounds when babies arrive, pitting the reality of the American workplace against the desires of men who wish to be involved parents.

Paternity Leave Policies

Who's Eligible Amount of Leave Amount of Pay
Reddit Full-time employees 17 weeks of paid leave, which can be taken within first year of child’s birth or adoption Full pay
Bank of America Full-time and part-time employees after one year 12 weeks of paid leave, with option of 14 additional weeks of unpaid leave Regular rate of pay
Patagonia Full-time employees after one year

Part-time employees after two years
Up to 8 weeks of paid leave Full-time workers get equivalent of 40-hour paycheck; part-timers get their respective equivalent
Ernst & Young “Primary care” parent (male or female) after one year

New fathers after one year
Six weeks of paid leave

Two weeks of paid leave after birth or adoption of child
Full pay
Wal-Mart “Salaried associates” (typically store managers and corporate staffers) Two weeks of paid leave after birth or adoption of child; time can be taken all at once or split into separate weeks during child’s first year Full pay

Only an estimated 14 percent of U.S. companies currently offer some kind of paid paternity leave, a margin that has stayed about the same since 2005, according to Kenneth Matos, senior director of research for the Families and Work Institute. By comparison, the institute reports, 58 percent of employers offer women some kind of leave, such as disability, following the birth of a child, although it’s usually not paid.

Taking or Leaving Leave

U.S. companies with 50 or more employees are required by federal law to allow new parents to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But among working dads, lack of pay is a major factor affecting the use of leave. Eighty-six percent of more than 1,000 dads surveyed by the Boston College Center for Work & Family said they would be reluctant to take paternity leave unless they could be paid at least 70 percent of their salaries. Seventy-four percent said employers ideally would offer between two and four weeks of paid paternity leave.

In the United States, “paid parental leave is just not there on a national policy level,” says the center’s executive director, Brad Harrington.

During a White House summit on working families earlier this year, President Barack Obama pushed for paid parental leave and lamented the United States’ outlier status as one of the only developed nations that doesn’t guarantee at least mothers paid time off to give birth.

For many fathers seeking work/life balance, putting family first can carry a stigma. That played out in the press when New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy took two games off in April for the birth of his first child, and sports commentators ridiculed him for bucking the presumed code of machismo among professional athletes. Several months later, the blogosphere crackled when then-CEO Max Schireson of MongoDB Inc. wrote about his plan to step away from the top job at the high-tech company to spend more time with his family.

“Will that cost me tens of millions of dollars someday? Maybe,” Schireson wrote. “Life is about choices. Right now, I choose to spend more time with my family and am confident that I can continue to have a meaningful and rewarding work life while doing so.”

Stew Friedman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the newly published Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life(Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), says the conversation around work/life balance has definitely evolved; it is no longer thought of solely as a women’s issue. “We are in a different stage of progress in our society,” he says. “So there’s certainly more rhetoric that supports the idea that fathers, as well as mothers, ought to be playing full partner roles on the domestic front.”

Supporting Modern Families

Despite the costs of paid family leave, a variety of employers offer the benefit. Their reasons range from the philosophical (it’s a modern, progressive thing to do) to the pragmatic (it fosters loyalty among employees and attracts the best job candidates).

Ellen Williams, an assistant director for Ernst & Young’s Diversity and Inclusiveness Center of Excellence, says about 1,000 of the consulting firm’s U.S.-based employees—an even mix of men and women—take paid family leave in a given year.

At Herman Miller, about 100 employees, both men and women, took paid family leave between Jan. 1, 2013, and May 29, 2014.

“As we interview candidates, one of the reasons they’re interested in talking with us is because of policies such as parental leave,” says Kathy Spinelli, the company’s vice president of talent management and total rewards. “Sometimes, it’s even more appreciated by those considering Herman Miller than by those within Herman Miller, who very quickly come to see that as a given and sort of a logical thing that everybody should do.”

Privilege Underwriters Reciprocal Exchange offers female employees eight weeks of paid maternity leave and new dads one week of paid leave. “It’s definitely part of our culture,” says Colin Haupt, vice president of human resources for the insurance company, which is based in White Plains, N.Y., and has 260 employees. “I don’t think as a stand-alone policy it makes a huge impact, but coupled with all of our other perks and benefits, it probably does.”

Advocates for greater work/life balance say paid paternity leave is wonderful for the relatively few men who have access to it. But some argue it’s more important for employers to offer all parents flexible-work arrangements—such as telecommuting, compressed workweeks, and the ability to adjust starting and quitting times—given families’ ongoing needs.

“Some companies may give you several weeks of [paid] paternity leave, but then you come back and you have so little work/life balance that you go home stressed every day,” says Rebecca Bottorff, chief people officer for Inc., which employs 425 people. “We make a promise that people can have both meaningful work and a full life.”

The Raleigh, N.C.-based telecommunications company, which grants new fathers a week of paid leave, offers employees the usual flexible-work arrangements in addition to offbeat perks such as the option of taking a 90-minute lunch and exercise break each day.

The tone was set early on by co-founder and CEO David Morken, a father of six, Bottorff says. “We chase people out of here by 6 or 6:30 so they can go home and be with their families and come back refreshed and renewed the next day.”

For champions of workplace flexibility, there was both good and bad news in the latest National Study of Employers, compiled by the Families and Work Institute in partnership with the Society for Human Resource Management.

Flexible-work arrangements are more prevalent today than they were six years ago during the recession. Sixty-seven percent of more than 1,000 HR professionals surveyed, for example, said their companies allow employees to work remotely, an increase of 17 percentage points over a similar 2008 study. Instances of employers offering extended leaves of absence declined over the same period, however.

Men may have traditionally felt pressure, as primary breadwinners, to remain on the job regardless of parental duties. That appears to be changing.

“They say, ‘I’m going to be out,’ and they just go out and they happen to be at a [child’s] ball game and check their e-mail,” Matos says. “It sort of flies under the radar as opposed to it being a big issue.”

Eric Porter, a 39-year-old controller at cybersecurity firm DigiCert Inc., says he has not felt any fallout for his sometimes unusual work schedule. Porter’s 7-year-old son has autism, and he regularly takes the child to appointments with specialists. On some days, he doesn’t get into the office until midmorning.

“I had a very honest conversation with our executive management team,” he says. “From the very beginning, they were very understanding, and I think they appreciated the fact that I was forthright and brought it up to them early on.” For his part, Porter says, “I try to give them more bang for the buck.”

DigiCert’s flexible-work arrangements are informal and tend to be customized to meet the needs of individual employees, says Human Resources Manager Jon Taggart, SPHR. The Lehi, Utah-based company, with 120 employees, offers new dads one week of paid leave. New moms get the same amount of paid leave, as well as the option of short-term disability.

“Because of it, we’ve got very low turnover, high engagement, happy employees,” says Taggart, who credits company founder Ken Bretschneider with nurturing a family-friendly culture.

W.S. Badger, a Gilsum, N.H.-based manufacturer of organic beauty and skin care products, offered time off to new parents years before it grew large enough to fall under the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act, says Jay Smeltz, PHR, human resources coordinator.

The family-owned company, which has 65 employees, dates to 1995. In 2008, it began offering a Babies at Work program for new mothers and their infants and started granting male employees a week of paid time off for births or adoptions.

At least four dads have tapped into the benefit since then, Smeltz says. Among them is 33-year-old inventory analyst Derek Galligan, who combined his week of paid paternity leave with additional paid time off to spend two weeks with his family after the birth of his son in 2012.

“Our working culture in America really takes no account of a child’s or family’s well-being,” Galligan says. “I don’t get that feeling here. They’re more attuned to the fact that we’re actually people.”

Advancing Gender-Neutral Flexibility

Advocates for greater work/life balance favor a uniform national code on paid leave for parents, but they acknowledge that political reasons make a federal mandate unlikely. A proposal for a national paid family leave program financed through a payroll deduction is also a long shot.

Three states (California, Rhode Island and New Jersey) have implemented their own systems. The California version recently marked its 10th year and reported that about 1.8 million residents collected replacement pay over the past decade, mostly to spend time with new children. The number of men drawing paid-leave benefits grew from 12,812 in the first year to 65,513 last year, according to the California Employment Development Department.

“The only thing that makes me optimistic in terms of this particular issue is, no matter whether you’re on the right or the left, families matter—or they should matter,” says Harrington of the Boston College Center. “It would be nice to see at least some minimum amount of mandated paid leave for parents of each gender. That would put us in sync with about 99.5 percent of the rest of the world.”

There’s also the possibility that young male professionals will change things from within, says the Wharton School’s Friedman. “The values of today’s students and the future business leaders of the world are very different from their parents,” he notes. “And the private sector, motivated by profit, will be creating work environments that are more attractive to the best and brightest.”

Dads who currently enjoy paid paternity leave or flexible-work arrangements say they can’t imagine not receiving the same kinds of benefits if they switch employers.

“I talk to my dad about it—he’s a retired HR professional,” says Blum, the Herman Miller e-commerce manager who enjoyed two weeks of paid paternity leave a few years ago. “He tells me I need to appreciate what I have because not many places do that.” As usual, father knows best.

Mike Ramsey is an editor and freelance writer based in Chicago.

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