September 23, 2022
As diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) continue to influence well-being strategies, so too do they play an increasingly important role in leave benefits. In 2021, 75% of large employers considered diversity and inclusion to a great or moderate extent in designing their leave benefits. This article describes practical ways to incorporate tenets of diversity, equity and inclusion into your company’s leave policies.
Create consistency and equity across employee populations
Do you have different leave benefits for different populations? Sometimes benefits vary by employee locations (e.g., different states in the U.S. or different countries globally) or by different employee populations (e.g., exempt and non-exempt employees). Evaluate these differences, and where possible, create harmony through consistent policies across locations or by offering similar benefits across all employees (e.g., prorating benefits for hourly employees). When you can’t provide the same benefit for all, consider an equivalently appealing alternative. For example, if paid leave is not possible for hourly employees, could you offer schedule flexibilities and/or relax attendance policies? Both paid sick leave and increased job flexibility can bolster health equity. In fact, one recent study found that access to paid sick leave was associated with increased likelihood of having an office-based health care visit, and another study showed that access to paid sick leave improved health outcomes for adults and led to decreased pediatric emergency room visits.1,2
Make leave available for a diversity of employee experiences
As one employer put it, “Personal leaves should be used for whatever is personal to you.” When leave buckets are overly structured, they may be unintentionally exclusive of employees’ needs. Rather than trying to have a leave bucket for every scenario—from vacations to volunteering to pet adoptions—consider streamlining leave benefits to give employees flexibility, encourage use without any employee hesitation and reduce your company’s administrative burden. Some employers have even created “lump sum leave” buckets for employees to take leave for reasons that wouldn’t traditionally be covered by leave policies, such as time off for social justice activities.
Examine leave policies through a variety of employee lenses
Because leaves can be very personal, employers should make an effort to understand the many reasons why an employee might request leave. For example, LGBTQ+ employees may take leave to receive gender-affirming care, while other employees may request time off to care for their mental health. Others may seek time off to address family emergencies, divorce proceedings or other legal situations. Still others may request time off for an extended sabbatical or travel, or to pursue a passion project. Understanding the myriad reasons why employees use leave will help inform policies that serve all employees and make the experience—from requesting time away to returning to work—a better one.
Leverage impactful and inclusive communications
As you evaluate your company’s leave benefits through an inclusive lens, don’t forget to extend this review to your leave communication practices. Communications are a key tool in defining and promoting your company’s leave policies.
Some inclusive communication strategies include:
- Using authentic and diverse imagery featuring your company’s own employees or use images without people, such as pictures of your company’s locations around the world;
- Inviting your DEI team to review communications to ensure that the content is culturally competent and relevant;
- Using conversational and supportive language and visual aids;
- Writing materials at a middle-school reading level to ensure access for varying levels of literacy;
- Using person-first language and avoiding bias, stereotypes and hurtful clichés;
- Providing communications in local languages;
- Providing printed materials to employees who don’t use electronics as a regular part of their job; and
- Ensuring that communications are accessible for individuals of all abilities (e.g., including alternate text and image descriptions, including subtitles and closed captions, using a range of media to convey information, and including design colors and fonts that provide sufficient contrast).3
Engage local managers in reinforcing fair and inclusive leave policies
For companies with a large population of shift, hourly or front-line workers, local business units and managers play a critical role in the deployment of inclusive leave policies. Regular trainings can teach managers what types of leave employees have access to legally and through your company benefits while challenging biases and stereotypes that may inadvertently influence leave approvals and denials. Trainings can also offer guidance for managers who may not know how to respond in a difficult situation; for example, consider supplying a list of dos and don’ts for managers supporting employees on bereavement leave. These trainings can foster a more empathetic and supportive environment among colleagues. They are also an opportunity to build relationships with local managers and encourage them to reach out to your leave team when in doubt or before denying a request that your company would support.
Remove barriers that may be inadvertently limiting leave
Periodically review your policies and solicit employee feedback to identify potential barriers to employees. For example, does your company’s bereavement policy require an employee to submit documentation or relationship identification? This creates a hurdle for all employees during a difficult time, but especially for employees with long-term partners and no marriage certificate. Similarly, does your company require documentation for an employee to request caregiver leave? Employees may be tapped as caregivers by extended relatives like siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, as well as close friends or neighbors, so consider expanding caregiver eligibility beyond the standard Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)-covered family members.
Leading companies are expanding the definition of family in their policies to be more equitable and inclusive. Some are even removing the definition of family altogether so that employees can individually define what family means to them. This inclusive practice can apply to a variety of leave benefits, such as sick, caregiver and bereavement leaves. For example, some employers provide bereavement leave for “family-like” relationships. This ensures that the policy acknowledges the grief of employees who grew up with extended families (e.g., employees who were raised by their grandparents or have a chosen family, common in the LGBTQ+ community).
Be inclusive of all parents
Eighty-eight percent of large employers offer paid parental leave, and many consider adoptive, foster and parents through surrogacy eligible for the benefit along with birth parents. Employers can also broaden their parental leave policies by removing primary and secondary caregiver designations. This helps ensure gender neutrality in both policy and practice. Other inclusive policy changes include allowing parental leave to be taken incrementally rather than all at once to accommodate a variety of family needs, such as traveling for pre-adoption visits or staggering leaves with a partner. Once an inclusive policy is in place, inclusive implementation is key. Supporting both men and women equally in taking parental leave benefits is one example of how employers can demonstrate their commitment to equity. To encourage all parents to fully utilize available benefits, employers may consider giving fathers and mothers the same amount of paid parental leave, embrace examples of senior leaders taking parental leave and launch communication campaigns targeting dads.4,5
Koch Business Solutions’ Inclusive Parental Leave Policy
At Koch Business Solutions, diversity, equity and inclusion are factored into all facets of the benefits package. When the company rolled out a new parental leave policy, they intentionally extended eligibility to all parents (including those via surrogacy and adoption) to embrace and support all the ways employees choose to build their families.
Support employees through all family-building journeys
Inclusive leave policies support the variety of ways employees choose to form and grow their families, as well as help them through challenges they experience along the way. Employees experiencing fertility or prenatal challenges benefit from access to paid time away, such as sick leave for doctor’s appointments or short-term disability (typically referred to as salary continuation outside the U.S.) when bed rest is required for pregnancy complications. More leading employers are also offering leave for pregnancy loss. When doing so, employers should consider being inclusive of losses beyond miscarriages and stillbirths, such as failed surrogacies and adoptions, lost eggs and embryos or abortions, and normalize this type of leave for both men and women.
Create a culturally conscious holiday approach
Floating holidays are a common way that 66% of large employers in the U.S. infuse inclusivity and flexibility into their approach. Traditionally, some employers were prescriptive with floating holidays, allowing employees to use them only on certain days of the year. With an eye toward inclusion, employers are allowing employees to use floating holidays on any day without restriction or even rebranding them as “diversity days” so they can be used for a variety of celebrations that may or may not be an official holiday. Likewise, some employers have removed formal holidays from their calendar altogether, and instead have integrated those days into a larger PTO bucket for employees to use when it best suits them.
Netflix’s Flexible Approach to Holidays
Netflix takes a unique approach to paid time off and holidays that stands out from the standard floating holidays benefit. The company encourages employees to take time when they need it without any prescriptive policies or set holiday and vacation schedules. This allows employees to observe holidays and celebrations that are important to them and remains true to Netflix’s philosophy of enhancing productivity through the lens of inclusion.
Create a globally integrated policy
As employers look to create globally consistent leave policies, there is demand for leave policies that accommodate employees in different countries and of diverse backgrounds. To ensure your global leave policy is culturally conscious, review cultural norms and expectations for time off, as well as the policies and laws of each business location. For example, in countries where there is significant cultural stigma regarding mental health, offer general sick time or well-being time, as opposed to mental health days. Also, many large employers likely have employees working in a country that is not their home country. Consider offering leave or flexible work arrangements for those employees traveling to their home country for extended periods of time. While one global leave policy may not be feasible, strive to create an inclusive global framework that allows for local flexibility while maintaining some consistency and equity across geographies.
Making Use of Data
Use data to drive change
Employers are increasingly relying on metrics to offer a clearer picture of how employees utilize leave and identify hidden pitfalls within their leave program. Tracking the number and types of denials can unearth equity issues that may need to be addressed. Collecting feedback through surveys or focus groups when employees return from leave can also help employers better understand what went well with their leave experience and what could have been improved.
Still unsure where to start? Partner with your Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to gather data. They have a keen understanding of what needs aren’t being met through current benefits and pain points in the employee experience, making them great partners in determining how to make your company’s leave policies more inclusive.
This article was informed by members of the Business Group’s Leave Optimization Forum.
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- 1 |Ma Y, Johnston KJ, Yu H, Wharam JF, Wen H. State mandatory paid sick leave associated with a decline in emergency department use in the US, 2011-19. Health Aff (Millwood). 2022;41(8):1169-1175. 8. Accessed September 12, 2022.
- 2 | Hegland TA, Berdahl TA. High job flexibility and paid sick leave increase health care access and use among US workers. Health Aff (Millwood). 2022;41(6):873-882. Accessed September 12, 2022.
- 3 |Disability-inclusive communications guidelines - United Nations. https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/un_disability-inclusive_communication_guidelines.pdf. Published March 2022. Accessed September 12, 2022.
- 4 | Eaton E, Jackson C. Want to improve gender equality at work? Help men take parental leave. https://www.mercer.com/our-thinking/want-to-improve-gender-equality-at-work-help-men-take-parental-leave.html. Published October 30, 2018. Accessed September 12, 2022.
- 5 | Colantuoni F, Rajbhandari S, Tolub G, et al. A fresh look at paternity leave: Why the benefits extend beyond the personal. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/a-fresh-look-at-paternity-leave-why-the-benefits-extend-beyond-the-personal. Published April 20, 2021. Accessed September 12, 2022.