By Kelly Tanner (New York City)

At a certain point last year, employees at my company started cracking jokes that there was something in the water. Then certain nosier colleagues began examining waistlines for signs of growth. At first the phenomenon seemed contained to a single department, with almost a third of the employees in one stage of pregnancy or another. But then the situation spread to other divisions as well – it seemed like a corporate baby boom had arrived.

As a colleague and a friend, I love meeting the new babies in the office for the first time, as new parents proudly debut their little bundle around the cubicles. As a Human Resources professional, a baby boom presents a set of business challenges that can be difficult without some innovative solutions. Pregnancies require some flexibility from employers: they result in not only a small new little person for parents to balance with a career path, but also lots of time off needed for doctor’s visits, discomfort and lower productivity, long periods of time off, increased insurance premiums, and sometimes, a brain drain as employees leave to stay home with children. How can a company best be prepared to meet these challenges?

The odds are somewhat against us in the US, for employers and employees alike. All other developed nations have some form of paid leave available to employees paid usually through a social insurance system funded by taxes (with the exception of Australia, which nevertheless has a financial “baby bonus” system). In the Unites States, however, the burden is left entirely to, and at the discretion of, employers. The Family and Medical Leave Act provides workers with 12 weeks of job protection when away from work to care for a newborn or adopted child, and is available to workers of both genders for a total of 24 weeks between two parents. However, in the absence of a social insurance system, none of this time is necessarily paid leave. Employers are left to decide if they will pick up the slack of providing it.

Additionally, because smaller employers are not covered by FMLA, and because the eligibility rules for employees require a substantial period of full-time work previous to leave, only about 60% of all US workers can take advantage of FMLA’s protections. These same requirements also skew eligibility based on income – 74% of employees earning $100K and above may take advantage of FMLA, in contrast to only 39% of those earning less than $20K. Several states have added paid family leave benefits for several weeks, but these are in the minority. As a result, only a quarter of all employers offer fully paid leave of any duration in the US, and one-fifth offer no leave of any kind, paid or unpaid.

Challenges to Employers – And Solutions that Work

The end result is that employers are not getting much help from outside to provide employees a cushion as new parents. As a result, employers mistakenly conclude that offering paid leave and family-friendly benefits is a matter of “being nice,” instead of a fiscally responsible business decision.

With women poised to become the majority of the overall workforce this year, and the wage gap, though narrowing, still alive and well, lack of financial support during leave and family-friendly benefits reinforces traditional gender roles in such a way that men, women, and employers all lose. Female employees pay a penalty in both the short and long term, as social expectations that women will take on child care duties and men will be providers, combined with the usually lower wages earned by women prior to having a child, create a system that encourages women to leave the work force to care for young children, while discouraging men from participating in full time parenting even when they wish to. Employers are left with a system that is unbalanced, and with the high probability that they will lose some of their top employees as they make job decisions based on child-related factors. As a former employee of Middlesex Savings Bank in Massachusetts who quit after the birth of her first child states, “My company’s lack of flexibility contributed to my decision to leave.” Employees of Ernst and Young, on the other hand, cite their company’s family friendly workplace policies as a contributing factor to their decision to stay with the company for the long term. The cutthroat practice of retaining top human capital makes these benefits a tool of corporate survival.

So, when that baby boom hits the office, and talk around the water cooler centers around trimesters, what do the progressive companies have that others don’t?

Strategies vary, but paid, gender-equitable parental leave is first and foremost in importance. If leave is balanced across both parents, the burden on individual employers is lessened in the short-term, and over the long-term keeps work teams more split evenly across genders, which increases productivity. The return on investment is clear. Because general expectations discourage men to take leave even when it is available to them, support for paternity leave must be reinforced by top management. In an informal poll among friends with young children, men all said that they took extended leave only after a male manager above them had already done so. This is supported by research, which also shows that merely offering the paternity leave in the workplace increases employee morale.

In the transition back to the workplace for a new mother, employers can explore options for flexible workspaces, which increase both productivity and morale, and alternative business hours. Job sharing or a compressed work week may also allow employees who would have otherwise left the workforce to stay integrated to the business, contributing to profitability and reducing the risk of flight to a competitive company. Private, comfortable spaces in which to use a breast pump (some companies provide the pump as well) also allow women to return to work sooner and to balance parental leave between genders. Such “lactation programs” are often cited as a benefit offered by top companies – as the former Middlesex employee put it, “There is a big difference [between] grudgingly accepting that the mother has a legal right to use a breast pump, and being actively supportive (like providing a place other than a bathroom or closet and allowing break/lunch time to be broken up into several segments).” That difference can give an employer an edge, both in retention and by contributing to a reputation that fosters recruitment.