Many years ago, I watched a female co-worker get the short end of the parental leave stick. It was a small company, and she was the first employee to ever get pregnant. The company didn’t have a paid parental leave policy so she basically just received the minimum required under Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rules—12 weeks, unpaid.
That’s the thing about negotiating paid parental leave: The best time to ask is before you take the job, not after you’re already employed (and expecting).
Once you are expecting, there isn’t exactly much wiggle room. Especially if you’re pregnant, you’re probably going to have a tough time finding a new job (it’s theoretically illegal to discriminate against hiring pregnant women, but let’s admit that biases still exist). It’d be doubly hard to quickly find a new gig that grants you excellent maternity benefits, since many jobs require you to be there a year before getting paid parental leave.
Later in my career, I watched a different female colleague negotiate for a good parental leave arrangement before she joined the company—and before she was pregnant. And she got it. Down the road, she enjoyed much more paid time home to recuperate physically and emotionally after childbirth and bond with her new baby.
That’s when I made a solemn vow to myself: When making a career move, I would never accept a job at a company that didn’t have a written paid parental leave policy. If push came to shove, I’d make them write a policy for me before I accepted.
According to one study, fewer than 40% of people negotiated their compensation at their last job offer. But compared to earlier this decade, double the number of employers offer at least some paid parental leave beyond what’s required by law, so I felt like the time was right to do what I could to move the needle, too.
When I got an offer for my current job at Fabric, I told them I couldn’t accept until they came back to me with a written parental leave policy. Their answer? “Y’know, this has been on our to-do list! We’ll get right on it.” Three days later they sent over a robust policy, and here I am.
If you’re looking to negotiate paid parental leave like I did, and like my colleague who inspired me did, here are five steps you can take to make it easier.
Step 1: Deflect a Little
Again, it’s illegal to discriminate against someone who’s pregnant or wants to have a baby. But biases are real, and I didn’t want to raise red flags or seem like I had any “special” reason for asking about a parental leave policy.
So I told them about my vow not to accept a job somewhere that didn’t have a written policy. First, that’s totally true. Second, it externalizes the ask: less “I need to know for myself” and more “it’s this thing I promised.”
Similarly, you could always point to this article (ahem) and blame your request on me: “Someone advised me to see a written parental leave policy before accepting any job offer—can you share your policy with me?”
Step 2: Don’t Call It “Maternity” Leave (Please)
Referring to it as “maternity” leave (instead of “parental” leave) puts the focus on women. It also has implications regarding biological birth as opposed to adoption, surrogacy, or any of the other ways people can become parents.
First, broadening the conversation is just a nice, fair thing to do. But even if you are a woman giving birth, I firmly believe that including men in this conversation will help everyone. If we don’t normalize fathers taking time off, women will never get ahead, either.
And parents of all genders also want time with their children, whether they gave birth or not!
Step 3: Come Armed With Facts
The same rules apply to negotiating parental leave that apply to all other job negotiations. Just as you would for a salary negotiation, do a little research to learn what’s standard for people in your field. Can you share any comparative information with your prospective employer to help build the case that not offering a solid parental leave plan will put the company at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting solid talent?
Step 4: Use This Conversation to Gauge Company Culture
If your future boss balks at the mention of parental leave, that’s not a great sign. If they try to convince you that you don’t need to have this conversation right now, that’s also not a great sign. If they have a policy that’s not very generous and they’re not willing to budge (even if it’s something that’s important to you), that’s yet again not a great sign.
Meanwhile, if they take your question seriously, like my employer did, that is a great sign. If they answer your question in a timely manner? Another good omen. And if they come back to you with a policy that feels thought-through and generous, you might just have a winner.
Step 5: Remember It’s Never Too Late
If you’re already at your company when you decide to have a child—and you didn’t negotiate parental leave in advance—never fear. Start by understanding what your company does typically offer, whether that means perusing an HR manual or asking your manager.
From there, if you’re not happy with what you find out, you can try to negotiate a better situation. Although some managers might be open to making you an exception to the rule, many will be uncomfortable with that ask. So, Harvard Business Review suggests, try instead to do a little research on what’s standard for your industry and come to your boss with a proposal for a new policy.
You might note that colleagues at your company have struggled with parental leave, which can hurt the bottom line if it increases employee churn. Suggest partnering with your manager to come up with solutions and pitch to upper management together.
At the end of the day, your ability to negotiate for parental leave will depend on your individual situation. But watching those two co-workers (the one who didn’t get great leave and the one who did) was an early lesson in my career—one I hope you can learn from, too.
This article was originally published on Fabric. It has been republished here with permission.