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Rex Huppke: Why is everyone criticizing Netflix’s paid parental leave plan?

If there were a common protest chant in workplaces across America it would go something like this:

“What do we want?”

“Change!”

“When do we want it?”

“Soon, so we can start complaining about it!”

I thought of this as I watched the swift reaction to news that Netflix is giving its employees up to a year of paid maternity or paternity leave after the birth or adoption of a child.

In a blog post, the company’s chief talent officer wrote: “We want employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances. Parents can return part-time, full-time, or return and then go back out as needed. We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay. 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.”

That sounds pretty sensible to me. And the initial reaction in Web headlines and on social media was, “Wow! What a great step forward for working parents!”

But less than a day after the company’s announcement, the tone changed and I started seeing these actual headlines: “Why Netflix’s unlimited parental leave is probably a bad idea for your company”; “Why Netflix’s ‘unlimited’ maternity leave policy won’t work”; and “Netflix’s New Parental Leave Policy Could Make Things Worse for Women.”

Good grief, people, way to be negative.

When it comes to paid maternity leave, we, as a country, suck. Consider this fact from a 2014 report by the International Labour Organization: “Out of the 185 countries and territories with information available, all but three provide cash benefits to women during maternity leave. The three exceptions are Oman, Papua New Guinea and the United States.”

The only thing guaranteed to new mothers in the United States is 12 weeks of unpaid leave, though a few states mandate paid time off and some companies provide compensation. Polls have consistently shown strong public support for paid maternity leave, and research has found that broad societal benefits stem from giving mothers and fathers time to bond with and care for their babies.

Also, studies have shown — and logic dictates — that workers granted the time they need around a major life event like the birth or adoption of a child are more devoted to the company and likely to work harder.

A day after Netflix announced its plan, Microsoft said it would start giving mothers and fathers up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave. Mothers will also have an additional eight weeks of maternity disability leave at 100 percent pay.

This all strikes me as progress.

So why are so many people being naysayers? Rather than applauding Netflix for taking a calculated risk that might actually help workers, critics are scratching their chins and saying, “Well, that might work for Netflix, but it’ll NEVER fly at my company.”

I have three responses to that:

–Stop scratching your chin. It’s annoying and you look pretentious.

–Nobody said your company has to do the same thing.

–Why don’t you spend your time thinking about why it won’t work at your company and what you need to do to fix THAT problem.

Implementing significant changes in workplaces — even changes that most people desire — tends to be unnecessarily complicated. Ideas get dissected and looked at from 700 different directions, and we look more for the faults than for the benefits the idea might bring.

Many questioned the flexible nature of Netflix’s parental leave extension, saying effectively that employees can’t handle that kind of freedom, that they need more clear-cut guidance on their time off. Some suggested the policy would confuse people or make them feel pressured to work more.

That’s not really giving employees much credit. If your workers aren’t sure whether they can trust management when it says, “Take whatever time you need,” then your problem is with your company’s culture, not with a flexible parental leave program.

One writer said that giving a mother more time to spend with her child might make her less likely to return. So because of that speculation we shouldn’t offer new parents paid time off? That’s like saying, “Oh, you know parents, once they get to actually liking that child they’ll just want to abandon their careers and stay home all day.”

Rubbish.

The way we handle parental leave in this country, particularly maternity leave, is atrocious. Netflix took a bold step in offering employees a reasonable way to take the time they need and to tailor it however they think works best. I believe that will encourage workers to enjoy their time with a new baby, while still remaining connected enough to their work that they’ll want to come back with a full head of steam.

You can argue that opinion and say it’s naive or idealistic. I’d say it’s a reasonable expectation for any company that is functioning in a healthy, productive way.

So again, the problem here is not that lengthy paid parental leave is undoable. The problem is that companies are unwilling to create an environment in which lengthy paid parental leave can be done.

It’s a choice between the status quo, which keeps us in line with Oman and Papua New Guinea, and the right thing, which puts us in line with the rest of the world.

Sounds like an easy choice to me.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at rhuppke@tribune.com or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.

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©2015 Chicago Tribune

Visit Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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