February 17, 2021

Parental leave at startups: What to think about

Is the most generous leave policy necessarily the best policy? And how can you make sure whatever policy you land on is sustainable as your startup grows?

Laura Kennett

5 min read

Caring duties disproportionately affect women; they’re still perceived to be the primary carer in a family.

Paternity leave uptake is also incredibly low in many European countries, including the UK, with the majority of EU member states’ parental leave policies falling short on pay, flexibility and more. On top of that, 41% of parents are now worried about being penalised during the pandemic. 

Startups can be different. 

Family and carer policies are key to supporting families in the workplace and essential to retaining (and attracting) talent. Allocating time and resources to developing appropriate policies can be a great showcase for your startup’s brand.


But generous leave policies are costly and, if you need to reduce them in the future, lead to tricky conversations. So how do you do the right thing while ensuring your benefits are sustainable?

Here are 10 things to consider when creating your policies:

1. Be representative of modern families: Model different types of family arrangements and how they would be affected by your policy. Consider how you would defend your policy in the case of adoption and surrogacy cases, or a same sex couple. Spotify’s parental policy provides all parents (including surrogates) six months paid leave that can be taken in blocks until the child is three years old.

2. Commercially robust: Model scenarios where you assume a low, mid or high percentage of the workplace taking leave over the next 1-4 years. What would be the financial impact? Remember to factor in the cost to recruit cover for the leave and allow for a flexible return. Have you factored in a pay back clause into your enhancement agreement in the event that your colleague doesn’t return or leaves soon after returning?

3. Use your company values and principles to design the experience. Design the experience in line with your values and people philosophy. I work for responsible data studio Projects by IF; our work addresses the inequality in technology, so having an equal pay policy was central to our policy design. 

4. Does your approach reinforce gender imbalances? Have a look at your headcount and the gender split, especially in senior leadership roles. Review this against how your current policies are used.

  • Does your business consider employees for promotion or new roles before or during leave? 
  • Are colleagues on leave reminded they can use their personal development budget while on leave?
  • How agreeable are you to flexible working arrangements across roles/seniority? 
Does your business consider employees for promotion or new roles before or during leave?

5. Is your policy gender inclusive? Considering the modern family unit — is your terminology outdated? Use language such as primary and secondary carer for an inclusive policy.

6. Consider how you keep connected while the parent is on leave. Essential for all but particularly important if the business is going through a period of change. It’s great when this is designed upfront and not just seen as HR’s responsibility. it creates a more personal experience when you hear stories from the manager or team about projects and new adoptions. 'Keeping in touch days’ are a legal provision in the UK to help parents stay connected and really useful when you’re preparing for a colleague to return.

7. Remember every parent’s experience is different. Plans can go up in smoke when you have a baby with colic or you suffer from peri and/or post natal depression. Leave space open for the parent to change their plans by proactively checking in long before the agreed dates.

8. Sleep deprivation is very real for parents and can impact performance. Manage expectations upfront with your colleagues to maintain psychological safety. Try saying, 'We expect that you may feel this way, it’s okay,' or 'If you are struggling, please be open with us.' If you can offer shorter working days or weeks when parents are transitioning back that can be very beneficial.

9. Consider professional support. Whether it's an employee assistance programme, a coach,  therapist or paid for childcare. If you don’t have the budget then be clued up on the charities and nonprofits that can help parents and carers. Pregnant Then Screwed has some great resources.


10. Monitor the success of your policy over time. Continue to assess the success of your policy. Set out success criteria for the work in advance and continue to evaluate over time. 

The criteria could include:

  • Who is using the policy
  • How parents are using it — what did they value the most
  • The connection during leave
  • The success on the return
  • How long parents stay in the business post return
  • The actual financial cost vs expected cost

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reduced its parental pay benefits from 52 to 26 weeks paid leave after concluding it was more disruptive than helpful.

Creating great parent and carer policies is about more than just leave — it’s about creating an environment that can sustain, motivate and develop people for the long term.

Find out what your team values, what they are afraid of and what’s worked well. Speak to other businesses who have good family policies to understand how their policies work in practice and the challenges they face.

Creating great parent and carer policies is about more than just leave — it’s about creating an environment that can sustain, motivate and develop people for the long term. 

Whatever you choose, do the research in advance and be prepared to defend your policies.