When I was pregnant with my son, I worked for a DC-based tech startup with a fantastic maternity leave policy. Before I went on leave, my manager and my director allowed me the flexibility I needed for doctor’s appointments, daycare registration, and pediatrician interviews. The supportive environment made my pregnancy easier—and surely contributed to my willingness to work 10-hour days until my water broke.
This, unfortunately, is nowhere close to the norm.
Startups are known for their youth: They’re often founded by people in their 20s, who subsequently hire dozens of other 20-somethings. Even startups founded by professionals in their 30s or 40s tend to hire young people for sales and operations roles, relying on their stamina, ambition, and willingness to adapt to rapid change. This, coupled with a desire to keep costs low, means that entrepreneurs clamoring to beat the odds of startup success often put developing a generous maternity leave policy in the category of “things to get to later.”
In fact, San Francisco-based startup PaperG recently studied the maternity leave policies of a number of startups nationwide and found that, while many companies offer perks like gym memberships, catered lunches, and unlimited vacation, very few offered paid maternity leave (and not a single seed-stage startup did).
But it’s time to start thinking differently. A strong maternity (and paternity) leave policy is beneficial to the health of any business—especially startups, and especially in their earliest stages. Here’s why.
1. Employee Retention
As any startup knows, retention is a critical issue—the combination of young employees and long hours is a recipe for high employee turnover. Estimates for the cost of losing an employee vary widely, but the Society for Human Resource Management argues that it can be as much as six to nine months of the position’s salary, after factoring in the cost of training and onboarding and accounting for lost productivity. Perhaps worse, when startups are in early stages with small staffs, losing a key employee—and his or her knowledge—can cripple the company.
Startup leaders need to keep in mind that though they’re fueled by recent graduates, those youngins will grow up, and—here’s the scary part—major life events tend to happen en masse. When I was working at a startup that employed dozens of young people in inside sales, I had to wear sunglasses at my desk to shield my eyes from the parade of diamonds that marched in each morning. And—wouldn’t you know it—that surge of engagements was followed quickly by a surge of weddings and another surge of pregnancies.
To keep young, hungry employees and their knowledge of your product, your company benefits need to grow with them. (And this goes for keeping talented young women and men by offering both maternity and paternity leave.) Otherwise, they’ll be moving on to more established companies with better “adult” benefits.
2. Recruiting at Both Ends of the Experience Spectrum
A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about working for a startup and mentioned that, once a company matures and has some cash available for higher salaries, the executives tend to bring in more seasoned employees. This structure—industry veterans leading bright, young staffers—makes for an environment in which employees at all levels can thrive.
But consider that these senior-level candidates, while ready for a new adventure, will likely be unwilling to give up their big-business benefits. PaperG found that 61% of the women they polled (from the tech industry) reported that they would not consider working for a startup or tech company that didn’t have a maternity policy.
In other words, failing to offer paid maternity leave ultimately means that a startup is opting out of a huge talent pool. Having a competitive package off the bat means you’ll be able to attract talented women from both ends of the experience spectrum—as soon as you’re ready.
3. Maintaining a Healthy Workplace Culture
A robust maternity and paternity leave policy doesn’t just help companies retain and recruit talented parents, it can create a more equitable workplace culture.
First, non-parents will see their colleagues treated fairly during a challenging time, a direct demonstration that the employer cares about the well being of its staff. They’ll feel confident that, should they ever need to take leave or require support for non-maternity or paternity health issues, they’ll be treated properly, too.
More importantly, a generous maternity leave policy sets the standard for how female employees should be treated. It shows all employees that women and mothers are valuable assets to the company. A lack of paid maternity leave sets a much different tone, signaling to employees that women who become mothers aren’t valuable contributors (and thus giving the green light to other employees to adopt this philosophy). Over time, an insufficient policy will not only damage retention and recruitment, but will lead to a complete lack of diversity.
I’ve lived startup life, and I know just how difficult offering paid leave can be when trying to turn a profit. But, just like first-rate technology, secure systems, and flexible office space—there are some investments that simply can’t be ignored.