'It's a mess': Agencies fall behind in parental-leave policies

Lindsay Cavaluzzo’s second maternity leave was a godsend.

Sure, she had less sleep, more work and less money, but Cavaluzzo, a media director at WPP-owned Maxus, got 12 weeks paid leave and came back to work through a transition program that let her work part-time temporarily.

In talking with sources throughout the industry, though, it becomes clear that Cavaluzzo was lucky. While some agency staffers rave about generous, and flexible, parental leave policies, many others complain that agencies are falling farther behind in this area, especially with parental leave a hot topic in talent-hungry Silicon Valley and across the country. Some bemoan stingy programs; others pointedly note that agencies haven’t moved to include fathers. Many find paid parental leave policies across the industry to be disjointed, disorganized and, in some cases, completely unfair.

“It’s a mess,” said a new father and agency employee whose wife gave birth four weeks ago. “We say we’re progressive, and in most ways we are but in this case, we’re behind.”

While the state of parental leave leaves a little something to be desired across the U.S., the very culture of the agency business — which tends to be demanding and client oriented — exacerbates things for new parents.

“We’re not an island of our own” is how Andrea Bredau, head of human resources at Huge, which recently instituted a shorter workday transition schedule and the option to work remotely for six months for new moms, puts it. “We can’t just think how does a person who is going to be working less time works with themselves and Huge, but also the client.”

All over the map
One big problem is lack of standardization. Holding companies don’t really mandate any sort of policy across agencies. For example, at WPP, which has tried to make diversity and flexible working arrangements a priority in the last few years, a document supports flexible working arrangements, but those policies are set at local agency levels. At Omnicom, a spokeswoman said the company provides agencies with guidelines that they can’t disclose. So bosses and managers are stuck with a sort of prisoner’s dilemma in which they try to craft the best policies for their needs — and often perks vary from boss to boss, department to department.

A look at some maternity policies proves the point: Even inside WPP agencies, there isn’t necessarily a standard. At J. Walter Thompson, depending on tenure, primary caregivers get up to 12 weeks. The average maternity leave at Ogilvy is six weeks, although there are cases where employees got between eight and 12. At Maxus, a recent revamp has given all employees regardless of tenure between 12 and 14 weeks with adjusted pay.

Outside of WPP, at Havas, new mothers get 12 weeks maximum but only if they have been at the agency four years. At Hill + Knowlton, new mothers get 16 weeks. Deutsch gives 12 weeks with an option to extend to 16, and lets moms or dads work four-day weeks at full pay for another 12 weeks.

A survey by the 4A’s management services division (which surveys agency operations so members know what’s going on at the competition) found that half of the 173 responding agencies had some kind of paid maternity leave policy beyond accrued vacation time and federally mandated disability. (That’s up from 30 percent in 2010.)  The most common plan was two weeks. Some agencies gave as much as 12 weeks.

“The unmistakeable trend is a little bit more generous parental policies,” said Tom Phelan, vp of management services at the 4A’s. Most shops are inching toward giving some kind of combination of paid, federally mandated disability leave plus some paid time off on top of that.

The lack of standardization, though, can be an especially big shock for employees coming from abroad. British citizen Kelsey Hodgkin, group planning director at Deutsch, had friends that got nine months off when they got pregnant. “It was so daunting” when she found out she was pregnant, just a month into joining Deutsch last year.  Her bosses told her to “take the time she needed.” She took 16 weeks and then did part-time for three months, with full pay.

Most agencies boast “flexible” arrangements. But “flexible” can also mean “inconsistent,” say agency employees. One agency employee said that her boss told her she can “take the time she needs,” but her colleague in a different department was being told to handle her leave by the book: paid time off, six weeks of disability and then two weeks more.

Paternity leave: “It’s just not the culture”
A growing issue is paternity policies. After Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg became a father late last year and decided to take time off, the company announced it would extend parental leave policies (four months) to all employees, regardless of gender.

But elsewhere, paternity policies get murky.

Companies cannot legally give men and women different benefits, so instead, they just don’t give dads anything. Since most agencies can give mothers six to eight weeks of federal disability leave (fatherhood isn’t considered a “disability”; motherhood is), they end things there. The 4A’s survey found that about 60 percent of agencies offer some kind of paid paternity leave. While that’s up from 40 percent in 2010, most of them offer about two weeks.

It can get confusing, and everyone ends up losing: One new father at a major holding company-owned agency who spoke to Digiday on the condition of anonymity said he took his annual accrued paid time off (five weeks) when his son was born last fall because his agency only offers disability leave. “That was considered normal,” he said.

There are outliers: J. Walter Thompson, for example, makes no distinction between moms or dads and simply grants the “primary caregiver” 12 weeks off after which they can return to work for 20 hours a week for up to 16 weeks. “What is really cool about this is that it breaks through gender categorization, includes same sex couples and treats adoption the same as natural birth,” said Michael Steiger, senior HR business partner at JWT. Hill + Knowlton gives dads 10 weeks of paid leave. At Huge, it’s six weeks paid for fathers.

The agency employee who became a dad last fall said while he took all five weeks, there have been cases of dads in his agency who took just a few days and then came back. Several agencies implicitly treat men as unequal partners, through use of “primary” and “secondary” caregiver status — and benefits. The message: Fathers are less important.

“It’s just not the culture anywhere I’ve worked that lets you take the days you need and then come back knowing your job will be waiting for you and people will be supportive,” he said.

The competition for talent
But while the debate is ongoing, a couple of factors have pushed it into the limelight. For one, the national conversation has shifted onto parental leave policies. And the increasing competition for talent and the fact that Google, Apple and startups are now real talent draws makes having competitive policies a must. “We have to compare ourselves to other top employers” was the reasoning from H+K CEO Mike Coates, who detailed his agency’s changes in an email to staff in 2014.

Compare the numbers agency-side with the tech industry. Google gives mothers between 18 and 22 weeks of paid leave; Facebook gives both mothers and fathers 16 weeks and $4,000 in cash (and recently introduced a program that helps with egg-freezing costs); Apple gives mothers 18 weeks; Netflix has a trailblazing unlimited paid leave policy. Finance companies that also compete with Silicon Valley for talent also have generous policies. Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley offer 16 weeks of paid leave; Credit Suisse in November announced it would give U.S. employees 20 weeks.

Of course, these companies are flush with cash; agency companies aren’t. But employees say there is and should be a middle ground. One strategist who hopes to get pregnant this year said she is “terrified” of what will happen once she does. “Transition policies are in place here, but I don’t know if I’ll have the same job when I come back,” she said. “There is very much a culture of out of sight, out of mind.”

Cultural issues
Agencies have particular cultures. One is around long hours at the office. Flexibility might be written into company policies, but it’s difficult when you work as a part of teams that exert pressure. Companies could offer, potentially, 20 weeks off, but the culture could dictate that nobody takes more than 12, said Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother and the Working Mother Research Institute. Only one agency is on the magazine’s list of the 100 best companies: Ogilvy & Mather.

“I didn’t think my team would be OK with me working less hours. It would cause workload to shift on to them,” said Cavaluzzo. “I was so stressed about what we were going to do that I couldn’t enjoy the maternity leave,” she said. “It was awful. I was a disaster.”

When Cavaluzzo emailed Maxus head of human resources Kristin Mooney, Mooney reminded her of the reduced time option and told her to try it, if nothing else. She gave herself six months and said if it didn’t work, she’d have to quit. But it did work — with some adjustments. Cavaluzzo said that she started changing what she’d take on and said she wasn’t going to take the lead on a lot of projects. She says today, she is more productive because she has less time.“I feel this deep, burning desire to show to everyone that even though I was a mom, I could prove myself,” she said. Deutsch’s Hodgkin has found the same: She is able to do more with less time and manages workflow better.

With her daughter, Cavaluzzo said she felt that it would not have been OK to say she needed more time at home.

“I certainly made a big stink about it,” she said. “But it was hard to summon that energy after giving birth.”