If a company offers a benefit but no one uses it, does the benefit exist?

Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal has been in the news after announcing he’ll take time off for paternity leave after the birth of his second child. I love this story for the discussion it has launched, not just about the value of parental leave but also about the message senior leaders’ actions send to everyone working for them.

This is a topic that I try to help my clients understand. It’s not just the words I write for them that convey their message. Their decisions and actions say as much if not more to their teams.

In this case, we have Agrawal, the top executive at a company that reportedly offers up to 20 weeks of parental leave. He announced he will take “a few weeks” off, though he also said he will keep in touch with his executive team. This has kicked off a flurry of reaction and commentary (though less than Pete Buttigieg’s leave last fall, but digress).

Most notable is the comment from Alexis Ohanian, best known as the co-founder of Reddit (and husband of Serena Williams), encouraging Agrawal in a tweet to avail himself of as much of that 20-week leave as he needs.

“Take the time you need @paraga — it doesn’t have to all be at once — you can split #ParentalLeave up, like take a few weeks to make sure everything at home is AOK, then take every Friday off to use the rest of the leave. You’ll always be a text message away!”

Let’s set aside the fact that only 23% of American workers have access to paid leave and focus on companies that offer it. The way leaders use and talk about that leave will determine how employees use it.

This is the difference between policy and culture. Policy is the words on the page and the official company statements. Culture is what those policies look like in action every day.

Leaders who take advantage of not only parental leave but also vacation time, flexible work and other offerings that companies implement to attract talent will have employees who feel free to use those benefits too.

Leaders who do not take leave or vacation and miss family events in favor of work show their employees that, while the company may talk a good game, those benefits aren’t real and they will suffer consequences if they use them.

This is also true of employees whose leaders speak poorly of others who use such benefits. It doesn’t take much for a negative message to come through loud and clear.

This brings me back to the hubbub over Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s parental leave last fall after he and his husband welcomed twins. I won’t dig into the many layers of that backlash, but one comment from that time shows there are leaders who get it.

Garry Tan, co-founder with Alexis Ohanian of the Silcon Valley venture capital firm Initialized Capital, tweeted at the time, “Initialized has 4 months leave, and I took all 4 months to make sure everyone at Initialized felt like they could do it.”

No amount of “messaging” or expert policy drafting can make up for that crystal clear message from the top.

OK, so why should you care? Isn’t the company better off if it can say it offers a benefit but never needs to cover a leave or pay for time off?

No. The “Great Resignation/Great Reshuffling” should be evidence enough of how employees react to unsupportive environments. But even in a labor market that favors employers, top performers will always have options, and the last thing you want is a company full of employees who only stay because they have nowhere else to go.

Right? If so, you’ll be as careful with what you’re saying with your actions as you are with your words.

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