Quora Question: Is Unlimited Paternal Leave Really a Good Thing?

unlimited maternity leave
Netflix recently announced a policy of unlimited paternity and maternity leave. Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

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What are the pros and cons of an unlimited paternal leave program like the one Netflix just implemented? originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question.

Answer by Gayle Laakmann McDowell, founder and CEO of CareerCup, on Quora:

An "unlimited" (within the first year) parental leave policy might not be as good as it sounds.

It's understandable that people are excited about this. It seems like a good thing. It's equal across mothers and fathers; that sends a nice message that babies are not just the woman's responsibility. I think all parental leave should be equal. The flexibility offered through it is nice as well, since not every parent wants to leave full-time.

However, I'm deeply concerned about how it will actually play out.

From what I've heard, when companies offer "unlimited" vacation or sick leave, employees actually take less time off. The reasoning is that the time isn't considered yours, free to spend as you see fit. You also now have to worry about how you're perceived. Will taking X weeks off be considered excessive?

Facebook, for example, offers four months fully paid to both men and women. That's very generous (by U.S. standards, especially for fathers) and it's equal. Men and women both know that four months off is absolutely reasonable in the company's eyes.

Netflix didn't state its policy as one year of parental leave. No. That would be quite different (and very admirable).

It says it's "unlimited" (within the first year). Now parents need to worry about what's truly acceptable.

One year might be normal in other countries (where, notably, leave is typically paid for by the government and not by company), but it's not normal in the U.S. You probably won't see a lot of people taking one year just because they can, just as you probably don't see people at Netflix taking three-month vacations under their "unlimited vacation" policy.

People have to figure out what's acceptable, and that might well mean erring toward the more limited six-week leaves that other companies offer.

And, what's worse, this might impact men more than women. Many people (erroneously) don't feel like men "need" much leave, so men might feel expected to come back to work earlier.

Netflix's intention was likely quite good, especially as this is inline with how they offer vacation and sick leave. However, the actual impact might be quite bad.

It'd be far more powerful if it had explained the policy as one year of leave, for men and women. That's technically the same thing, but sends a very different message.

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