By:
September 22, 2020

This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter by and for women in media. Subscribe here to join this community of trailblazers. 


Paid parental leave leads to less stressed, more loyal and more productive employees. It keeps women in the workforce — and in the leadership pipeline. It also empowers men to be full partners at home, advancing gender equality in the sphere where it still lags behind.

Paid parental leave is simply foundational to a family-friendly workplace. Yet, just 15% of U.S. workers have access to any employer-sponsored paid family leave, according to the 2017 National Compensation Survey.

I’m happy to report that the Poynter Institute enshrined its values of flexibility, diversity and inclusion with a new paid parental leave policy: Poynter now offers up to six months of paid leave to birth parents and four months of paid leave to non-birth parents. 

Poynter is a nonprofit organization with just over 50 employees, and we have paid parental leave that’s on par with or better than large news organizations like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Alphabet.

Here’s exactly what we accomplished and how we got it done in less than one year (even on pandemic time!). Perhaps you can use Poynter as a case study for advancing this kind of policy at your organization.

As generous as possible

There’s more to a policy than the headline. That’s why we published Poynter’s full parental leave policy. You can see how it’s administered and, crucially, how the organization is paying for it.

Our mantra was to “be as generous as possible” while also being a responsible, sustainable nonprofit. That goal was quickly challenged when the coronavirus broadsided the economy and our own revenue picture. But the consequences of the pandemic didn’t undermine the core belief that family-friendly workplaces are necessary for employees to survive in this new era. So Poynter proceeded with the six-month/four-month plan.

We consider a new parental leave policy phase one of a recommitment to work-life balance and family-oriented benefits. Phase two will be a policy that adds support for caregivers other than parents, such as employees who care for elderly relatives.

Squeak, wheel, squeak

There were many key players in the effort to establish the parental leave benefit at Poynter: our executive leadership team, our human resources director, a six-person family leave committee, members of our National Advisory Board, and of course, a baby or two with an impending due date.

Benjamin Hermel Sharockman was born in July. His dad, Aaron, is the executive director of PolitiFact. Aaron will retroactively use the new policy, which went into effect Sept. 1, after the election. (Courtesy Aaron Sharockman)

If I played a major role in this effort, it was as a squeaky wheel.

In the summer of 2019, I started reporting for The Cohort about how six women at The Boston Globe achieved 16 weeks of paid family leave. The experience illuminated both the negative effects of an insufficient policy (burnout, physical and mental health issues, a sense of betrayal, debt) and the positive effects of a humane policy (happiness, productivity, women’s career advancement, higher retention). The question I attempted to answer in the full story was why did it take these women two years to get a new policy when they never heard the word “no”?

As someone who advocates for systems that encourage people to show up to work as their full selves so they can thrive, I stewed on this. The only logical takeaway for me was that change takes time. And if I wanted to ever impact the policy where I worked, I should start trying now.

In the past, Poynter, like many small nonprofits across sectors, offered a combination of short-term disability and flexibility with employees’ paid time off to provide time off with pay for new parents.

Our old plan didn’t apply to partners or adoptive parents. It relied too heavily on manager discretion. And the six to eight weeks of short-term disability simply wasn’t long enough, according to findings from multiple U.S. and international studies.

In the fall of 2019, I expressed to HR my dissatisfaction and belief that Poynter needed a new policy. I learned that others had tried and failed in the past; I was encouraged not to get my hopes up.

Instead, I was even more inspired to challenge the status quo.

So I brought the topic up with senior leaders whom I knew publicly supported women’s advancement. I informally surveyed a dozen or so colleagues about their opinions on the policy and asked them to join a future committee on the issue. Over the winter holidays, I compiled and shared research. In January, I casually brought it up to women on our National Advisory Board, one of whom was Emily Ramshaw, who made waves by offering six months of paid family leave to employees when she launched The 19th*.

A few of my colleagues also initiated conversations about paid leave with NAB members. That led to an emotional, feet-to-the-fire discussion with the industry leaders who make up our advisory board and all Poynter staff, including the chairman of the board. The outcome? Three days after that meeting, Poynter president Neil Brown committed to establishing a more robust parental leave policy in 2020.

Change does take time. But times, they are a-changin’

Brown assigned Jessi Navarro, Poynter’s vice president of business and finance, to create and oversee a family leave committee that would research and propose a few different policies to the rest of the executive team. The original deadline to select and implement a new policy was April 1, but the pandemic slowed us down.

I joined five other women and men on the committee and shared my research. Committee members contributed intel from other organizations’ policies, and they brought helpful, diverse perspectives to the conversation.

We also demonstrated that a lot had changed since Poynter last reviewed the policy.

Demographics 

  • The Poynter workforce shrunk in size after the 2008 recession, and the smaller staff skewed older and female. The Institute was too small to be subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act, a labor law that requires some employers to provide leave for medical and family reasons.
  • However, in the last three years, Poynter hired more than 30 new people. At least half of our workforce, now numbering more than 50 people, are people between the ages of 20 and 40.

Attitudes and laws 

Leadership 

  • Poynter has a new president. Neil Brown just celebrated his third anniversary at Poynter. Under his leadership, Poynter hired a director of diversity and training and expanded leadership programming for women and people of color.
  • Poynter has more women in executive leadership positions. Kelly McBride, a longtime advocate for women in leadership, is now senior vice president at Poynter. Navarro, the vice president of business and finance, also ascended to her role within the last few years. Both women now sit on Poynter’s board of trustees.

Industry forces

  • More news organizations are expanding parental leave policies. The Washington Post announced 20 weeks of paid parental leave in 2019, and The 19th* launched in 2020 with six months of leave.
  • When this conversation began pre-pandemic, we were in a low-unemployment economy which historically gives more power to employees. Across the industry, we saw a lot of efforts to unionize, demand wage increases, and add more benefits in 2019.

It still wasn’t easy

We had executive-level support. We had a vision. We had deadlines! But we also had moments of tension, delays and confusion as we shaped the policy.

The family leave committee — Navarro, Nico Guerrero, Jon Greenberg, Kristen Hare, Alex Mahadevan and me — met five times between February and September, with a gap in the spring as we all concentrated on pivoting to an online-only organization.

Poynter’s family leave committee had diversity across age, race, gender, life experience and expertise. (Sara O’Brien)

Our early conversations centered around defining Poynter so we could compare our policies to other similar organizations. Were we a school? A news organization? A Tampa Bay nonprofit? Yes, to all questions. There would be no truly comparable policy for us, which I believe allowed us to be more creative. It was informative to see the competitive landscape, but I think we started vibing as a committee once we could focus on what we truly wanted.

Our HR director handled most of the legal and administrative stumbling blocks, like figuring out how other state laws applied to employees who live outside Florida. And I give considerable credit to Brown and McBride for editing our original policy proposal, which included tiers and timetables, to make it much more straightforward.

By Aug. 20, the committee got a preview of the approved policy, and on Aug. 24 we announced it to the rest of the organization. I think my colleagues were stunned into silence. At least, they were on mute over Zoom so I couldn’t hear their cheers or embrace their waving hands. I don’t think they could hear me gulping back my tears.

After I left the call, I listened to the soft din of my house. It was just me and my sleeping dog. I craved high fives and hugs. I got Slack messages and emoji.

Though the rollout was somewhat anticlimactic, I am confident the payoff will be life-changing.

We cannonballed so our ripple could be huge

I know from my reporting that what competitors offer to their employees will factor into what your organization will offer to you. Assessing the competitive landscape and doing your research is the first step in advancing a new policy, especially if one of your goals is to boost recruitment and retention. As I helped develop our policy, I saw plenty of presentations that showed graphics like this:

A screenshot of Grau’s original research slide deck. Poynter started at the bottom and now offers one of the longest paid family leave policies in the journalism industry. (Sara O’Brien)

But when most organizations are clustered on a chart around 10 weeks, it’s hard to justify going above and beyond. If it’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for us too … right?

Wrong. It wasn’t good enough for Poynter. And it’s not good enough for our industry.

Now, Poynter is a data point at the opposite side of the chart, and I hope that we bring everyone else with us. If Poynter, a small nonprofit organization that’s been around for 45 years, can figure out how to pay for and accommodate six months of leave, I believe your organization can, too.

Change is hard, and it can take time. Obstacles will inevitably drag you down. But workplace policies that allow employees to fully show up and excel are possible if you have the leadership, the creativity and the squeaky wheels.


For additional insights, community and ongoing conversations about women in digital media, sign up to receive The Cohort in your inbox every other Tuesday.

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Mel Grau is the senior product specialist at The Poynter Institute, focusing on Poynter's training experiences and newsletters. She also edits The Cohort, Poynter’s biweekly…
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