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A True Workplace Father’s Day Gift: Paternity Leave

A real Father's Day gift for Capitol Hill: paternity leave (CQ Roll Call File Photo).
A real Father’s Day gift for Capitol Hill: paternity leave (CQ Roll Call File Photo).

Want to give dads on Capitol Hill a real gift this Father’s Day?

Encourage them to ask about their office’s paternity leave policy.

Many offices on Capitol Hill do not have official paternity leave policies. Those that do often make it difficult or complicated for staffers to learn about the policies. Worse, offices that do offer such leave often have staffers concerned that “face time” trumps “family time,” making them reluctant to step away from their desks and BlackBerrys lest they be declared irrelevant on their return.

But paternity leave has benefits for more than just the men and babies involved. The biggest beneficiaries of men taking paternity leave are working women, who are able to spend more energy on their careers and have a partner at home share the domestic responsibilities. Policies such as paternity leave, among others, can help promote greater gender equity in both domains.

For this Father’s Day, rather than giving the men another pat on the back and a six pack of DC Brau Public Ale, Hill Navigator spoke with Scott Behson, an outspoken advocate of paternity leave and the author of “The Working Dad’s Survival Guide.” Behson’s new book includes interviews with dozens of dads, personal stories, research and practical exercises so dads can get the encouragement and advice they need to be successful both at work and at home.

A lightly edited Q&A follows.

Q. You’ve been an outspoken advocate for more men taking paternity leave. In your experience, what is the biggest hurdle to doing so?

There are two. First, even in many workplaces that offer paid paternity leave (and that’s only about 14 percent of private employers), many dads fear career repercussions for taking more than a week or so of paternity leave. There’s a stigma, particularly in intense workplaces with “all in” work cultures. Second, a lot of dads have internalized these pressures and feel like they’ll miss too much at work, or that things will fall apart without them if they take leave.

The current situation is a shame. Paternity leave can be transformative for dads and their families. It sure was for mine. And there’s tons of research showing paternity leave benefits moms, dads and kids, and, in most cases: employers. Most careers last 40-plus years. Taking three weeks when your kids are born is not going to derail your career, and that time is so important to set the stage for becoming the dad you want to be, and that your family needs you to be.

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Q. How can men approach their employers about taking time off for a new baby?

One of the nice things about paternity leave is that you should have plenty of lead time to discuss things with your bosses and co-workers. Take the initiative to help plan how the company will handle your absence, including working ahead, training temporary replacements or delegating tasks now, so people can operate without you for a few weeks. Make sure colleagues know your time frame and who can field questions while you’re on leave.

Many bosses may still not be supportive, but they are far more likely to be OK with accommodating good employees they trust. Earn credibility in the workplace now, and spend that earned credibility for things like paternity leave. Being up front and helping with planning should help earn that trust.

Also, I always thought a good approach for paternity leave, for both the dad and the employer, is to take a few weeks up front, and then spread the rest out by taking 1-2 days a week for the next few months. In this way, you are not so disconnected from the workplace, your boss and colleagues see you are still committed to work, and you can pace yourself at work during a time when family demands spike.

Q. Have you noticed any patterns in employers granting paternity leave? Are there times it works better than others?

Work-family policies for dads are not well-established. As a result, things can vary wildly from employer to employer and even from manager to manager. Even when there is a policy, so much depends on supervisor and co-worker attitudes, as well as the workplace culture. In competitive industries, once one employer implements something like paid paternity leave, competitors soon follow. It makes sense as they compete to recruit and retain employees from the same pool of talent. For example, all of the Big 4 accounting firms offer several weeks paid paternity leave. The same thing is happening in Silicon Valley and the big investment banks. Maybe one day it will happen in congressional offices. Once this trend makes its way to a wider array of industries, paternity leave will really pick up steam.

Q. On Capitol Hill, face time in the office is part of the culture. How do men who want to be involved dads step away from that?

This is a tough one. One of the major roadblocks to allowing flexibility or parental leave is bosses are often not good at measuring performance. Instead they rely on things like chair time or face time, which of course is silly and easily gamed. Opportunists work slow and stay late while productive people work fast and go home.

We need to give our bosses the tools they need to evaluate our work. Take the initiative to present a goal-setting system, with agreed upon measures of performance. Provide progress reports and document the work you do out of the office.

We also need to take control of our use of technology. One dad I interviewed for The Working Dad’s Survival Guide let everyone at work know he’d only check work email once each night after his kids were asleep, and that he’d only respond to those that really needed immediate attention. At first, people were shocked. But he remained a great worker and stayed true to his schedule. Soon afterwards, people stopped emailing him unnecessarily and many even adopted the same policy themselves. Of course workplace dynamics vary, so you have to know what is safe for you to do. At the same time, we need to stick up for our priorities when we can. Nothing will change if we don’t.

Q. In your time researching and writing this book, have you seen any trends or changing environments for dads at work?

A lack of a common understanding or appreciation for working dads’ issues means policies and attitudes are all over the map. I do think most large employers see that work-family policy is a key to employee retention, especially among those in their “prime parenting years” and those good enough to have options. I think many leaders understand the challenge on a certain level.

The devil, as always, is in the details and execution. The top leaders may see the long-term big picture, but there is often so much pressure put on middle managers for short-term performance that the best intentions don’t translate down to employees.

I’m an optimist, however. I have worked with many companies, and have seen many of them move from a situation where dads’ issues weren’t on the radar to situations in which they are starting to make good faith efforts. This wasn’t true 15 years ago, and in 15 years, we’ll be in a much better place. Right now, however, is a confusing and fast-changing time.


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