On Tuesday evening, Netflix announced what it’s calling an unlimited paid family program for new parents for the first year after a birth or adoption. Employees will get normal pay and the ability to choose to take time off, go part time, or work full time during that year. “Each employee gets to figure out what’s best for them and their family, and then works with their managers for coverage during their absences,” Tawni Cranz, chief talent officer, said in the blog post announcing the change.
If parents end up taking a full year off, that would make the company’s family leave policy the most generous in the country by far. There is no national requirement for paid leave, only 12 weeks of unpaid time off, so only 12 percent of private sector workers get paid leave from work. Even other tech companies known for their generous benefits don’t go beyond five months. But the question of whether employees will feel able to actually take all of that time off — and whether men and women will make similar decisions — is a big unknown that could end up backfiring on employees.
Netflix and other companies — Virgin America and Best Buy among them — have already experimented with unlimited vacation time. And while it can sound like a nice benefit that allows employees to take as much time away from work as they want, the reality can be different. “There’s been some work that has suggested that when situations are unstructured, people don’t necessarily have the push to make something happen,” Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute, told ThinkProgress.
If an employee is given 15 days of vacation, she has the feeling that she’s leaving five days on the table if she only takes 10. “With unlimited vacation it’s blurrier,” Matos said. “How much are you missing out, could you have taken more, should you have taken more, what’s your benchmark for taking time? It becomes a lot more of your own emotional ability to manage your time boundaries versus demands made of you on your job.” People can end up actually taking less time off — particularly if they become overwhelmed by “choice overload” and are unsure how much time to take.
That’s how unlimited policies have played out in some companies. At a tech company in Berlin, employees were hesitant to take vacation days and they ended up more burned out. An unlimited time off policy that was introduced at Tribune Publishing was quickly rescinded after employees complained and threatened to sue.
A lot of it can come down to company culture. “Do the employees feel coerced into minimizing time at home and maximizing time at work?” Matos explained. “A lot of it moves away from the nature of the policy itself and into the culture of the organization to see whether or not the policy plays out the right way.”
Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress, pointed out that there could be a big difference between what the company is signaling to the public and what it actually wants its employees to do. “Did they write the policy with the expectation that every parent will take a full year, or did they say we know it’s unlimited for a year but we know people will only take two months?” she said. (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed in the Center for American Progress.)
Paid leave may have an advantage over vacation time in one important way: the start date is very clear. “The question becomes when do they come back,” Matos noted.
At the same time, unlimited paid family leave could come with its own gender problems. Glynn pointed out that Netflix’s policy is progressive in offering the same paid leave options to both men and women as well as birth and adoptive parents. “It could potentially be great in terms of gender roles if you actually did see men taking leave at the same level as women, taking leave every time they have a baby and the same amount of time,” she said. “That would be tremendously revolutionary.”
But that’s not likely to be how people actually use the leave. “Realistically, I doubt that’s what we’re actually going to see,” she said. “My fear would be that because it’s so open-ended, people are going to err on the side of taking less leave.” And men already take less leave than women, even under structured policies.
Women may also face a particularly fraught decision when trying to figure out how much time to take away from work. “How would you even begin to know how to navigate that?” Glynn wondered. “There’s enormous pressure to not seem like you’re gaming the system.” Women face penalties at work when they become mothers. Even if unlimited leave is available, “you are still painted as someone who isn’t really dedicated to their job… Even in companies that don’t have such generous policies, there are all sorts of negative repercussions when [women] become parents,” she noted.
Worse, there’s no legal barrier preventing people who take an extended leave from risking their jobs. The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees someone’s job for up to 12 weeks of time away, but beyond that there are no protections. “One would hope [Netflix] wouldn’t fire you if you took a full year of leave, but they would be in their full rights to do so after you returned,” Glynn pointed out.
Glynn argued for a more defined policy. “If Netflix thinks you should take a year, they should say you have one year of leave,” she said. “I understand there are some reasons why you could argue it’s a good policy, that people can tailor it to their own needs. But I think it’s way too open to interpretation and has the potential to backfire.”