Creating a Parental Leave Program


Allison Whalen is the Co-Founder and CEO of Parentaly, helping companies improve the experience of parental leave from policy, to pre-leave planning, to return-to-work re-onboarding. In this guide, Allison walks through creating a leave programming including creating a policy and supporting employees pre- and post-leave.

Table of Contents

Why is parental leave important to handle thoughtfully? How can strong parental leave management be a competitive advantage?

A good parental leave offering attracts better talent – more and more companies are realizing they have to give longer parental leaves to better attract and retain top talent. A generous policy to attract the right talent is becoming table stakes and as a result, companies all over the US are extending their parental leave policies.

You need a plan to provide coverage during leave – many companies introduce a policy and forget they actually need supportive programming to turn that policy into a success. You need to make sure employees feel supported during their leave and when they get back to ramp productively on their return. 

Avoid post-leave attrition or disruptions – it’s hard for an employee to take several months off and re-ramp successfully. Taking a holistic approach to parental leave ensures that your policy doesn’t create unintended negative consequences from return to work business disruptions, or unintended attrition after parental leave. 


How much paid leave should you offer?

For birthing parents, 16 fully-paid weeks has become the benchmark – this is typical, and companies rarely have a policy that offers less than 12 weeks of paid leave for the birthing parent.

For a non-birthing parent, 8 fully-paid weeks has become the benchmark – for non-birthing parents, there is a much wider range of policies in place, with some companies going as low as 2 weeks.

Ask whether your policy goal is to provide the bare minimum, be competitive, or stand out – the ambition of your parental leave policy goals should determine how long you offer for parental leave. 

Check comps in your industry – theSkimm has an excellent crowdsourced parental leave policy database with over 700 company policies. You can filter it by industry or company size. Pick your competitor set, research what their policies are, and use it to inform your policy. Be sure to choose relevant comps to base your policy off; don’t look at Google’s policy unless you’re competing with them for talent. 

Consider whether parents will have options to extend the leave your policy offers – can parents use their PTO to extend their leave? This is particularly relevant if you have an unlimited PTO policy, as you’ll need to dictate how much of that unlimited PTO they can add to the end of their parental leave. Be specific with extension. For example, if you offer 12 weeks of paid leave, employees might be able to extend it up to 16 with unpaid time, but then after 16 weeks, the job isn’t protected and you don’t cover health care premiums. It can get very complicated depending on how many leaves you expect per year and you’ll want to structure your policy to deal with edge cases.

Should your policy distinguish between birthing parents and non-birthing parents?

There are two reasons new parents need leave:

  • Bonding – this applies to all new parents–whether you welcomed your child via adoption, surrogacy, you gave birth, or your partner gave birth. We’re in a world where every parent is viewed as a caretaker, and enough time for bonding is important (2 weeks for non-birthing parents won’t cut it).
  • Medical – if you also gave birth, it’s common for there to be additional time for “medical leave”, or more controversially, “disability leave”.

Generally, birthing parents get more leave – offering the same, generous policy for both parents is the best-case scenario; but is uncommon in practice. Companies, employees, and the broader community tend to understand if a policy grants the birthing parent more leave.

What is the typical tenure required to receive paid leave? How should your policy vary by position or tenure?

Check out the Parentaly Tenure Database.

Historically, companies often had a 12-month tenure requirement – policies required that a child was born or adopted after the 12-month mark for the employee to be eligible. Under this schema, even if an employee had a baby 11 months into a job, they would not be entitled to any paid parental leave time.

Many companies are moving to a sixth-month tenure requirement (or less) –  employers are increasingly making policies less strict to attract pregnant and expecting employees, encourage family forming, and not have people worried about hitting arbitrary tenure requirements. 

If you want to be progressive, but also protect your business, create a tiered requirement – everyone starts day one with a certain amount of leave eligibility, then over a minimum tenure they can earn full leave, e.g. immediate eligibility for eight weeks, then once you hit a six-month tenure requirement, you get an additional eight weeks. This type of policy prevents a scenario where a new hire could show up and take six months of paid parental leave within two weeks.

You should not have any difference in your policy based on role – The C-Suite should have the same eligibility as the entry-level employees. Some companies do have carve-outs where you have to be a FTE to receive paid parental leave but avoid different policies for different functions or levels of seniority.

Be careful with “clawback” policies – e.g. new employees are eligible for full leave, but once you return you have to hit a tenure requirement. This isn’t the preferred policy, because if the person wants to quit, it’s very difficult to claw that money back. And if it’s a bad fit and they realize they don’t want to return to work, they’re not going to do a good job if they come back and work just to hit a tenure requirement. 

How should you adjust compensation plans, quotas, bonuses, and vesting for an employee taking leave?

It’s important to have a company-wide policy that stipulates what happens to variable pay – if your sales reps make 50% of their pay in commission, or a large portion of an employee’s pay is an annual or quarterly bonus, it’s important to cover that in your policy. 

For commission: top employers guarantee between 80-100% of on-target-earnings pay – salespeople, account managers, etc. take jobs and make personal budgets expecting to make both base and variable pay throughout the year. If you only guarantee 100% of base pay, you’re only paying half of what they expect. There are a lot of negative unintended consequences of that. For more on how to think about parental leave for sales reps, see here.

For bonuses: annual bonuses are usually unaffected, but quarterly bonuses can be – typically employees who take leave and perform well receive full annual bonuses, but the status of the quarterly bonus varies across different companies. That’s a decision each company can make based on their situation. 

Hourly workers might be paid based on a ‘lookback’ – if you only work 15 hours a week in an hourly job, you can still qualify for leave, but you’re going to be paid based on looking at your average pay over the last 6-12 months. This way, you have a policy that is inclusive, but reflective of earnings based on actual work. 

Companies almost never change vesting schedules – across hundreds of companies, I’ve never seen a company change a vesting schedule due to parental leave. If the leave-taker goes beyond the period offered (e.g., takes 24 weeks when the policy allows for 16), then vesting may stop.

Continue healthcare coverage unless they take extended leave – it’s important to continue to pay the healthcare premium for employees unless they decide to take an extended leave (e.g., 24 weeks when you offer 16). In this scenario, the employee would be required to pay their healthcare premiums until they are back at work. 

What federal or state regulations around leave do you need to be aware of? 

Federal: FMLA requires 12 weeks of job-protected leave at companies with 50 or more employees – the Family and Medical Leave Act stipulates job projection for 12 weeks of unpaid leave for employees with 12 months tenure before the child, at companies with 50 or more employees. There are many technicalities to FMLA, for more detail, see the Department of Labor website.

State: state-subsidized leave certain states have family leave laws with state government subsidized leave. For example, the state might pay 60-70% of an employee’s wages while they’re on leave for 12 weeks. Typically there’s an upper cap on how much the state will pay (e.g. $1,500 per week), which usually translates to an annual salary below six figures.

As of 2023, 11 states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington—and the District of Columbia have state paid leave programs (note: as of 2023, not all of these programs have been fully implemented). All state programs are funded through employee-paid payroll taxes, and some are also partially funded by employer-paid payroll taxes.

Many companies choose to “top up” state-paid leave programs – for example, if California offers 60% pay for 12 weeks, and your policy covers fully-paid leave for 16 weeks, your company will “top up” the salary amount that wasn’t covered by the state in the first 12 weeks, plus 4 more weeks of pay. There are companies that exist to help administer these “top-up” payments.

Service providers can help with leave administration – e.g. Sparrow, Cocoon, and Tilt are great for companies under 2,000 employees. They can handle the filing pay, logistical, and administrative side of parental leave. Insurance providers often offer leave administration services for larger companies. 

Pre-leave preparation

What plans should departing employees make before their leave?

  1. Vision plan: what’s your long-term vision for your role? – employees should think about how they can increase the time they spend on energy-lifting activities. Research shows that the #1 reason employees leave after parental leave is they feel their work is not meaningful. People come back and minor inconveniences become major gripes. Ask what is energy draining and what is energy lifting. Anything that drains can be built into the coverage planning, to be permanently reduced upon return.
  1. Coverage plan: how will your key responsibilities be covered while you’re away? – list out what you do, who it will be covered by, and think about anything that might be paused. Then, think about what activities you need to do to hand off your work, whether it’s trainings, materials, email histories, or client introductions you need to prepare. Think about what explicit goals you want to create for the coverage team to accomplish while you’re gone. This can be time-consuming. 
  1. Communication plan: how would you like to communicate during leave? – document your communication preferences while you’re on leave. It could be what you want to be made aware of, or what decisions you want to give your opinion on. You don’t want to create unnecessary stress or make important decisions that someone on leave would have wanted to chime in on. Oftentimes, it’s as simple as giving permission to your manager to reach out to you in certain ways during leave, because otherwise, they’ll default to not bothering you.
  1. Work tracking plan: what do you want to be updated on when you return from leave? – think about what information you’ll need and how it will be tracked. Some updates might be readily available in reports the company already produces, some might require good record-keeping (e.g. detailed notes in Salesforce), and some might require a special document or meeting.
  1. Return-to-work plan: what will your first weeks back look like? – this is more of a conversation to set expectations with your manager. Discuss how much re-onboarding you need, what work you’ll take on when, etc. It allows your manager to build a more flexible and enjoyable RTW experience.

When should soon-to-be parents start leave planning?

Start building a coverage plan 3 months before leave – often that’s the earliest the employee on leave will have good visibility. Consider dedicating 30 minutes to an hour to leave planning every week for six to eight weeks. In rare situations, some may want to start earlier if they have a job with responsibilities that don’t change very much. 

Try to finish planning 1 month before leave – try to wrap up a month before the employee expects to go on leave, in case the baby comes early. That final month also provides a safety net for the coverage team to ensure they’re prepared while the expecting parent is there for questions. It can be stressful to hand things off at the last second.

How should a departing employee, their manager, and their team decide what to reassign, what to pause, and what to spend money to outsource?

First, evaluate what can be paused – does it need to happen during leave? If the answer is no, then pause it; it’s always hard to hand work off to someone else. If 70% of the work can be paused, that doesn’t mean the work wasn’t important, it just means it’s more project-based. 

For anything that can’t be paused, hand it off – options for new owners include peers, direct reports, managers, or outside hires. Each option has advantages and watchouts:

Capacity OptionAdvantagesPotential Pitfalls
PeersSimilar level of seniority and abilityPeers often aren’t excited to assume more work similar to what they already do – it might not be a positive experience unless the work feels new and different
Direct ReportsOpportunity to stretch and prove readiness for advancementTeams need to make sure reports feel supported, comfortable , and confident with step-up responsibilities (even while their boss is out)
ManagersCan ensure that high-priority items are handled properlyLeaders probably won’t be able to put enough time and effort into full coverage.
TempsCan give you added capacity (without drawing on team members who already have other responsibilities)Temps need to be trained up, and can be very expensive. If you’re going to have a four-month leave, they need to be on for six months when you count time to train and transition. Even companies with a budget for a backfill often won’t use one because there is so much additional work.

Using freelancers/agencies can be a resource-effective way to increase capacity – for example, ramping up spend with a marketing agency won’t cover the whole scope of the role, but it can cover some of the responsibilities with a bit of money.

The most successful approaches divide and conquer coverage among existing employees – it might be best to pause 50% of work, then figure out where managers, direct reports, and peers can step in for the other 50%.

When and how should you adjust team goals during a period when an employee will be on leave?

Acknowledge that you have to adjust the goals – this is especially hard for sales, they think they can make up the difference with extra hard work or by taking a manager and making them a player. But if you’re one person down, you can’t produce the same results. Think very critically about whether goals need to be reviewed or renegotiated, and adjust them honestly to reality. 

Communicate the necessary adjustments to the executive team – it’s up to the manager to escalate any changes to goals, and show the math behind it to the executive team. If possible, provide the executive team with options for resources they can add to try to fill in the gap and hit your original goal. 

During leave

Can you ask employees to work during their leave? 

Be careful if you’re using any disability insurance provider/government funds for leave – in these cases, your employee may not be allowed to work during their parental leave. 

Regardless of legality, try to avoid asking –  if you privately pay for all of parental leave and the employee is not protected under FMLA, nothing legally bars you from asking a new parent to work. But you still shouldn’t. There are enough cases when you’re barred from asking an employee to work during the leave that HR often sets a standard policy of not asking new parents to work.

You can typically ask for their opinion or advice – many employees will appreciate being consulted if there’s a big decision that will impact their work or team upon their return. Ideally, this type of situation can be addressed in the employee’s communication plan. 

What kind of communications should you send during parental leave?

Refer to the employee’s communication plan – make sure the employee provides a plan before they leave that covers when and what topics they would like to receive communications for. That way you’re not bothering them with extraneous notices, and they don’t return to unwanted surprises. 

As a general rule, always send communications for:

  • A reorganization – you should reach out and tell employees on leave about a re-org, even if it doesn’t impact them.
  • A change in their managers – always reach out and tell them as soon as possible, and offer a conversation with the new manager. It’s a horrible surprise to return to work with a new manager you haven’t already communicated with. 
  • Congratulations on the child – when the employee on leave has the child, send them a note to show you care. 

Return to work

How should you think about return to work? What should be in your return to work plan? 

Managers should put together a re-onboarding plan – they should do this two weeks before the employee returns to work. Go to anyone who has covered any of their work and ask them for written updates on what happened during the leave. Include any trainings or meetings that the managers think are important to update or refresh the employee. Give them time to clear their inbox, go through written updates, do a listening tour, and have 1:1s with their coverage team, peers, and leaders

Ask the employee to build a 90-day plan upon their return – it’s a good way to map out goals, set expectations, and outline next steps with managers. For some functions (like engineering) it will be less helpful.

Prioritize energy-lifting activities over energy-draining ones – returning employees should call out what they find engaging in their work and skew their role towards that as they re-onboard.  Don’t be afraid of this conversation, often, people call out unproductive meetings, broken processes, etc.

Re-onboarding is iterative – employees should talk with their manager about re-onboarding both pre-leave and post-leave. It’s a chance to hone the role and adjust to what’s realistic for the new parent. 

How long should you expect a returning employee to take to return to full productivity? What can you do to help them get up to speed?

The first 2-4 weeks should be solely focused on re-onboarding – give the returning employee the time and space to understand what happened while they went out and adjust.

Full re-onboarding takes anywhere from 3-6 months – your re-onboarding program may be shorter, but in practice, it takes 3-6 months before employees return to feeling really good about their performance. The manager might think they’re back within a month, but the employees often perceive that it takes longer to feel 100%.

Use return-to-work coaching programs to speed up return – they can help employees get back up to speed, create plans for re-onboarding, and provide support from experts who have been there before and seen successful returns in many different contexts. 

The returning employee needs to control the narrative and work on prioritization – they should draw boundaries and set realistic expectations. Oftentimes an employee walks back in and people say, “Thank goodness, we have so much for you to do.” Then, they’re already starting from behind as it’s impossible to work the same hours as usual with a newborn at home. 

What are the most important pieces to get right? 

Provide manager training and support to handle re-onboarding – make sure managers are empowered to make this experience a success, because ultimately people will quit or stay for their manager. You want to make sure that the manager assures and supports the parent through this experience. 

Pay attention to the upfront planning – 80% of problems people face come from a lack of upfront planning. Focus on the coverage planning period to set up your leave and return plan for success. 

Reassure your commitment to employees – make sure you proactively discuss the expecting employees’ career trajectory and professional development opportunities before they go on leave. Having this conversation well before someone goes on leave helps retention and signals that you’re not counting them out. People want to return to a workplace that is invested in their success.

What are common pitfalls?

Going radio silent – this is the worst of all possible approaches. Managers are often afraid they’ll say something illegal, wrong, or hurtful so they say nothing across the leave experience. When they do that, the new parent internalizes that the manager doesn’t care.

Failing to put together a re-onboarding plan – it’s shockingly common. People walk back in on their first day back and no one has put together anything to help them get back up to speed. Anything you can do to speed up and alleviate some of the burdens during return to work is powerful. 

Making assumptions about what new parents may want – managers sometimes assume that pregnant employees don’t want to travel or work hard as they get close to their due date. Some may want that, others may not. There is no one size fits all experience, and you get into trouble if you assume you know what the individual is feeling. 

Allison Whalen
Allison Whalen

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