For women who struggle with conflicts between work and home life, there is a moment in the film, "Equity," that is ruefully familiar.
The drama takes place at an investment bank where ambitious women are delicately managing career moves. One newly pregnant subordinate, the protégé of a male executive, realizes that her boss knows about her condition. In a meeting with her superior, she struggles with both happiness and fear as she weighs her situation — is her job's future, and her own future, on the line?
Such moments strike a chord in the real world.
At Mercer, we've found that, in most countries, mandated maternity leave benefits haven't substantially changed in recent years, though some companies have recently moved to offer their own extended paid leave to retain and attract talent. The problem is especially glaring in the United States, the only nation in the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development to lack a paid maternity leave policy. (Almost all the rest of the developed nations in the organization offer at least three months of paid leave.)
What's changing, however, is employer recognition that there are different kinds of family lives — from same-sex parents to retirees who provide childcare for their grandchildren, according to a Mercer survey. If banks want to keep up with a changing workforce, they need to start changing their policies.
As it stands now, companies in the U.S. may either abide by the required Family Medical Leave Act, which requires 12 weeks unpaid leave to care for a new baby (or adopted child) and/or any state policy. Unfortunately, banks often avoid making innovative moves due to legacy policies or fear of new risks. But risk and retention may be the very reason to rethink a policy. Think of it this way: To recruit and hire a mid-level employee in the financial industry, the average cost can easily be $10,000. If the person hired eventually leaves, there is the loss of experience and knowledge that will not easily be replaced by someone new.
Already, some tech companies view parental leave as not just an opportunity to manage litigation risk, but to attract and retain employees in a highly competitive tech world. That's why Microsoft is offering 20 weeks paid leave for mothers and 12 weeks of paid leave for non-birth parents while Netflix is offering unlimited paid time off for parental leave.
But that idea is just a start for banks seeking top talent. These days,non-traditional parental leave includes a wide range of options: parental leave for part-time employees; leave to recover from a miscarriage; and leave to cope with an aging parent or to handle an adoption. Family-related benefits are also extending into health care. For instance, Mercer found in its latest Parental Leave Report that 85% of companies offer their female employees services such as sleep management programs, maternity mentoring, lactation rooms and staged return to work.
To compete and retain talent, companies, particularly those in the financial sector, should consider the following five strategies:
Don't downgrade bonuses for employees on leave.
Only about half of companies provide full bonuses for workers on leave, while 31% provide a reduced bonus, according to the Mercer study. Yet, many companies see bonuses as an important retention tool. So it's essential that companies — especially ones in the financial industry where women are exiting at higher rates than men at all levels above the professional staff — provide bonuses for those on parental leave.
Offer and encourage paid paternity leave.
Globally, 38% of companies offer paid paternal leave at levels that exceed the local statutory requirements. Furthermore, 11% of banking and financial services firms plan to increase paternity leave days. Yet, according to a Deloitte study, many employees feel uncomfortable with taking paternal leave.
It's common for companies to provide two to five days paid leave around the time of birth. While there is a trend of men starting to take paternity leave — including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg — men generally do not.
There is also an argument that paternal leave can benefit both spouses — a Swedish research institute in 2010, for instance, found that each additional month a father stayed on paternal leave increased the mother's earnings by 6.7%, in part, a function of her ability to return to the workplace sooner.
Keep on-leave employees engaged.
The usual approach to leaves is often to just say: "Goodbye — see you in a few months." But why not keep employees engaged? Rather than encroaching upon their time off, have conversations with them on how they'd like to stay engaged before they leave. Occasional lunch meetings or updates from the team are ways to help them stay current and not feel out-of-touch.
I remember one exceptional colleague who was heading into maternity leave. She was excited to stay engaged by writing a monthly blog on her experience; the team was excited, too. To our surprise, we discovered later that her country's laws prohibited it. However, just because there are hard rules about leaves is no excuse for managers and colleagues to stay out of touch.
Watch for biases in benefits.
Some managers might think that flexible work schedules are meant to benefit working parents. Many employees without children might also appreciate this benefit if they have other family members requiring their attention; those employees could feel left out if not given the option to use such leave. Managers need to also be mindful of their own biases and consider the new dynamics of today's workplace when implementing benefit programs with HR leaders.
Manage your managers.
Right now, just 25% of financial services firms train their managers to effectively support employees through parental leave and their return to work, according to a new Mercer report. Effective leave policies will not help your company if they are not administered well by front-line supervisors.
Jennifer Openshaw, a nationally known author and financial expert, is a partner with Mercer, the global consulting firm. She was founder and CEO of Women's Financial Network, later sold to Wall Street legend Muriel Siebert, and has appeared on Oprah, CNN and many other programs. She can be reached at @jopenshaw.
Editor's note: This post is part of an ongoing series looking at gender and diversity issues in banking and finance. For more on this subject, see previous posts in this series from SEC's Mary Jo White, Anthemis Group's Amy Nauiokas and Citi FinTech's Yolande Piazza, and visit American Banker's Women in Banking page.