The Senate recently passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill focused on rebuilding roads and funding climate initiatives. Next up is a more debated venture: a social policy package that, among other policies, would include four weeks of paid family leave. Previously, 12 weeks of leave was proposed and then left out, making the four weeks a small win for Democrats but one which still places the U.S. far behind every other developed nation. The burden of this gap—and the fact that paid leave is still at risk before the social spending package is signed into law—now falls on the American employer. And as we’ve seen in recent weeks, it’s not necessarily something many corporations are prepared for.
Last month, it was reported that an ongoing human resources problem is affecting Amazon, which employs more than 1.3 million people. At the heart of the issue for the retail behemoth is paid and unpaid employee leaves. While policies exist on paper, in practice the process is far more complicated—workers have gone so far as to email Jeff Bezos personally to demand an explanation for incorrectly reduced pay checks during leave.
Amazon is not the only company facing fallout from complex leave systems. And it isn’t just leave that’s creating tension between workers and companies, especially those experiencing high or rapid growth. A process that results in an employee spending their leave on the phone with insurance agents or, worse, not getting paid, is symptomatic of a fundamental disconnect between employers and the people who work for them.
Paid leave, especially for large companies like Amazon, is table stakes for the modern and competitive employer. Executing leave—and the policies and benefits that support people in these critical life moments—efficiently and thoughtfully is the next frontier for employers. It isn’t just providing the right benefits on paper, it’s the follow through that counts; and as we’ve seen time and again throughout the Great Resignation, employees are demanding more care and attention. 2022 is the year of the empathetic employer, where the most people-forward companies will win when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. In working with people teams day in and day out, here are some of the trends I’m seeing which illustrate this demand for empathy.
1. Focus on inclusive and accessible family and medical leave
Because federally paid leave—if it becomes law—only covers a portion of income, employees will be forced to depend now more than ever on their employers when it comes to taking leave. And the basics (e.g. medical leave for a surgery or maternity leave for having a baby) aren’t good enough. In 2022, companies must recognize that leave can take many different forms, a departure from how they have historically implemented leave policies. This evolving understanding is crucial not only to the family unit, but to the workforce. Approaching leave policies with a people-forward approach might look for your company like taking a gender agnostic approach to time off, allowing leave for pregnancy loss and domestic abuse, and providing time off for the caregiving of aging parents. Historically, employers have thought of leave narrowly, but in reality, there are many reasons why someone may require a leave and modern employers must accommodate them.
Again, having leave policies is crucial, but it’s not enough. Empathetic employers should focus on making leave transparent, accessible, and affordable. Imagine an individual faced with the urgent need to take care of a sick family member and doing mental gymnastics to navigate a web of federal, state, and employer policies. First, employers must make it easy for that person to understand what leave benefits are actually available to them when it comes to time and pay. It’s surprising how often policies like medical or family leave are buried in employee handbooks, or not mentioned at all. It’s crucial to be upfront with employees about what they’re entitled to, and then make it easy for them to actually take the time. Doing the latter means taking all the administrative aspects off the employee’s plate, so instead of spending time following up on claims with state and disability providers and calculating pay, individuals can spend their time focused on the reason they actually took leave.
The big question for an employee after they’ve figured out what they’re entitled to for a leave, is assessing whether they can even afford to take the time. Having a paid leave policy (which can be supplemented by Biden’s proposed federal policy as well as state and disability policies) allows people to take time off in the moments that matter most to them. In most cases, having this paid time off during critical life moments allows them to come back to work feeling supported. Employers that understand the value of leave to their employees, and their broader team, will ensure that policies are accessible and transparent such that those who need them are able to use them—and get paid.
2. Be flexible—or prepare to lose employees to remote-forward companies
It’s no secret that the pandemic gave nearly everyone time and space to think about what matters most to them. For some, that means being nearer family, for others, it’s a new adventure and change of scenery. More than ever before, employees are either fully remote or working more days remotely, and to be competitive, employers need to accommodate this trend. This complicates logistics for employers, but the benefits of building trust by providing flexibility outweigh any costs.
One of the issues that led to Amazon’s inability to accurately and easily fulfill leaves is the age-old tech problem of disparate systems not working together to provide a seamless user experience. Most companies place a high degree of importance on finding, say, marketing software that is either a catch-all or works well with the team’s existing platforms. It’s important to place the same level of importance on cohesion when evaluating systems for benefits and leave, especially when you’re dealing with the complexity of people who work across state and country lines.
3. Ask questions before you solve problems
Because empathy requires us to really listen and understand someone else’s experience, empathetic employers should approach benefits with the same mentality. Gone are the days of setting up a ping pong table or hosting a happy hour and assuming your employees are content and loyal.
In a recent conversation with a CPO for a fully remote tech company, she shared how her team facilitated listening sessions to understand the root of the company’s burnout problem. While initially it had been proposed to host several mental health days—a definitive 2021 trend—the CPO uncovered that it was the company’s norms and behaviors around communication and planning that were leading to burnout. Requests were too frequently coming in at the last minute, and there existed a culture of an always-on expectation to complete a task as soon as it lands in your inbox. Even if they had given employees a mental health day, the company culture was such that employees would have felt pressured to work through it. Instead, the company really listened to the issues contributing to employee burnout, and revamped processes for the way team members communicate. Truly listening is perhaps the most empathetic thing employers can do, especially in a changing work environment.
While we can take the recent Amazon headlines at face value as a cautionary tale of what happens when employee leave falls through the cracks, there’s a larger lesson for employers. At its core, failing to pay employees on leave due to vastly complicated systems and processes is an issue with prioritizing people. When employers truly listen, they prioritize the well-being and needs of their employees, especially during the most important and critical times of their lives.