Netflix parental leave policy neglects workers who need it most

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Netflix is making headlines with its expanded parental leave policy, but will employees actually use it? And what about the Netflix hourly, lower-paid workers excluded from the policy?

Netflix's announcement that it will offer 12 months of paid parental leave to employees sounds great in theory. But dig a little deeper and there are some obvious problems with its script.

The policy, announced in August, provides salaried employees in its streaming division unlimited leave during the first year after the birth or adoption of a child. "We want employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances. Parents can return part-time, full-time, or return and then go back out as needed. We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay. Each employee gets to figure out what's best for them and their family, and then works with their managers for coverage during their absences," according to Netflix's statement.

Pressure for parents to not use the policy?

 Offering such a generous policy is one thing but will anyone actually have the nerve to take advantage of it? In an IT labor market where the unemployment rate is half that of the national average and tech firms struggle to find talent to fill open positions, culture and perks like unlimited leave, free massages, food, nap pods and hefty signing bonuses are increasingly used as recruiting tools.

That same culture, however, demands workers show an unwavering commitment to their workplace, often at the expense of work-life balance, which means there might be unconscious pressure not to use available leave. "The greatest difficulty with extended parental leave policies will be the same as with unlimited vacation policies [which Netflix also offers]: convincing your top performers to take it. An example must be set from the upper management, leadership and other top performers that taking advantage of extended parental leave and lengthy vacation policies, the managers and team members will feel more comfortable emulating that behavior," says Matt Brosseau, CTO at IT staffing and recruiting firm Instant Alliance.

Related Story: Lack of Parental Leave Drives Employee Turnover

Another reality of the Netflix offer is that there aren't a lot of women in IT or in Silicon Valley to take advantage of unlimited leave benefits. The American Association of University Women reports that only 26 percent of those working in computing are women, and in Silicon Valley, only 3 percent of venture capital-funded startups are led by women. And while the benefits extend to fathers, a quick look at the statistics shows dads aren't even taking the leave they're currently entitled to, much less a full year. In the U.S., 76 percent of fathers take less than a week off when a baby comes home; 96 percent are back at work within two weeks.

Waiting for a Silicon Valley culture shift

There has to be a significant cultural shift, both within and outside of Silicon Valley, before these policies become the status quo, so parents aren't penalized for being part of their children's lives. That shift is driven from the top down, yes, but also from the bottom up, with each employee brave enough to stand up and take the leave that's available to them making a difference. "Employees can create a cultural shift each and every time they use these benefits. Their single actions help give confidence and credence to other employees who desire the same system of support. However, senior management and department heads also need to consider leading by example if they want employees to fully engage with and leverage the family support systems that are offered to them," says Donna Levin, co-founder and vice president of Workplace Solutions.

Is Netflix ignoring workers who need leave the most?

While white-collar Netflix workers are struggling with cultural pressures, an estimated 400 to 500 workers in the company's DVD distribution centers don't have that luxury. It's this exclusion of hourly, lower-paid workers from Netflix's leave policy that's drawn the most fire. This is arguably the talent segment that could most benefit from a more generous leave policy. "Workers need to be able to perform their jobs and take care of their families. This policy excludes workers who'd benefit the most. They can't afford nannies for their children, or elder care for other relatives, and this disproportionately affects women. Two-thirds of the nearly 20 million low-wage workers in the U.S. are women. They need policies like this more than ever," says Karin Roland, organizing director at UltraViolet, a nonprofit working to end sexism and discrimination and advocate for women's issues in the workplace.

Most low-wage and minimum wage jobs don't offer parental leave or other white-collar benefits, but that doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't be done. Even for white-collar workers, benefits offerings have improved drastically over the last few years, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that such a change could eventually happen, says Brosseau.

Netflix can send a message

Offering parental leave and other work-life balance benefits to all workers would send a powerful message of inclusion and equality in an industry struggling with just those issues. "It makes logical sense that this would be good for business to make sure your employees are taken care of -- especially in this case, this is a highly profitable division of a highly profitable, visible company; the fact that they left out their most vulnerable and needy workers doesn't look good," says Roland.

Related Story: Is your company culture driving away women tech workers?

Extending parental leave policies to all workers would show that Netflix is committed to its talent at all levels, and is serious about attracting and retaining good people. In the cutthroat talent war in Silicon Valley, doing so could force other IT companies to follow suit. In a competitive talent marketplace some organizations are regularly upping the ante when it comes to benefits for their employees in order to attract the best talent. "Media attention … that paints your organization in a negative light will damage your ability to not only retain your current employees but attract employees in the future.  In a talent-driven market other organizations will have to catch up eventually if they wish to remain competitive in recruiting new employees," says Brosseau.

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