Michael Taylor is the cofounder of a startup with 47 employees across three countries and a self-confessed work addict.
A few months ago he found out he was going to be a father, with the baby expected this summer.
While elated, he was forced into confronting a problem in the startup world: there isn’t even a rough standard for how much time fathers should take off on paternity leave.
Not only is the law complicated and varied from country to country, but paternity leave for male founders has not been as fervently debated as maternity leave. Norms have not been well established.
“There’s a big difference between the legal requirements and moral obligations, so when I designed the paternity policy I tried to get an idea of what everyone else is doing,” says Taylor, whose company Ladder.io helps other early-stage startups with growth marketing.
“For paternity policies that's actually remarkably difficult to find, because not many people talk about it. I even asked some friends who run companies but they didn’t have much of an opinion on it either.”
He is not alone
There’s been a cultural shift towards equality in parenthood across much of Europe. Men are increasingly expected to do their share of childcare responsibilities, while there is a drive to give women more flexibility in returning to work or taking time off.
The laws are also changing. In the UK, for example, the recently-adopted rules for Shared Parental Leave allow mothers to transfer some of their 52 weeks statutory maternity leave to men, who otherwise have two weeks.
But this has yet to translate into concrete changes in how startups approach paternity leave, says Ben Gateley, cofounder of CharlieHR, a small startup providing a human resources and advice platform.
Ideally companies would build in as much choice to parental leave as they possibly can to ensure that it’s not the policy directing employees’ personal decisions.
“One of the things that we see is a very generous maternity policy but a statutory paternity policy [for startups],” he says.
“This says that one of the two individuals involved in deciding to have a child has more opportunity to stay at home than the other, or is actually required to stay at home.
Gateley adds: “Ideally companies would build in as much choice to parental leave as they possibly can to ensure that it’s not the policy directing employees’ personal decisions.”
Many startups find that their hands are somewhat tied. The absence of a founder presents a huge disruption to business-as-usual, and the company is unlikely to be able to offer a long period of leave paid at full salary.
While this applies to both maternity and paternity leave, there are still cultural norms which often prevent men from taking significant time off from workplaces where paternity leave is simply not expected.
Different in the Nordics
But on the continent, Nordic attitudes to parental leave and responsibility offer a glimpse into a more equal future.
In Sweden, for example, both parents are entitled to 16 months of leave between them, paid at around 80% of their salary, up until the child is eight years old.
Crucially, three of the months are reserved exclusively for fathers on a “use it or lose it” basis.
Swedish startup veteran, Hampus Jakobsson, who took nine months off when his first child was born, says it would be “absurd” for men not to take at least those three months.
In the UK, where there is no such “use it or lose it” rule, only 2% men have taken advantage of Shared Parental Leave rules adopted in 2015 which would extend their two-week statutory minimum.
What’s more, says Jakobsson, the law in Sweden itself provides the antidote to startup culture which undervalues work-life balance.
“Startups are bad at taking time off,” says Jakobsson, who co-founded his company Brisk in 2012 and now works independently as a startup advisor, angel investor and a VC at BlueYard Capital.
“There is a lot of financial pressure and often time is of an essence because of the novelty or competition so "working slower" feels like the worst option.”
Leading by example
Taylor’s decision about how much paternity leave to take and how involved to be in the business during his leave was made more complicated by the the knowledge that he was setting an example for the whole team.
“Because I’m the very first [founder to take time off], my decision... is going to change the culture quite a bit.”
He is grappling with how to implement a formal paternity policy and still keep it flexible for others in the business.
Hugh More, an employment lawyer at startup-focused firm, Withers Tech, says that small tech companies often prefer to keep their options open and respond ad-hoc when a question of paternity leave arises.
“As a lawyer, I think policies are a good, desirable thing,” says More. “They provide clarity that enable you to be consistent in treating like people the same by following a set of rules. But, unless drafted with care, they can feel cumbersome and inflexible.”
The advantage for very young companies is that early employees (of which a majority may be founders) have more of an appetite for flexible standards, and less of an expectation of generous parental leave provisions, says More. The risk, however, is that a reactive approach ends up treating people differently, without any grounds. “It's a very quick recipe for staff discontent,” he adds.
From a culture perspective, everyone looks at what the cofounders do to pick up cues of how they should behave as well
Taylor plans to take two weeks paternity leave and stay almost entirely offline for the duration. He’s opted for a company-wide policy that offers men two weeks leave paid at full salary. It may not sound that generous, but it’s a realistic plan which goes beyond the minimum requirements for two weeks at statutory pay (less than £150 a week in the UK).
There is one issue that everyone seems to agree on: paternity arrangements should not vary for different levels or roles within a startup, even though this can be an attractive option.
Ben at CharlieHR has noticed a “growing consensus” in a HR-focused discussion group with chief executives at high-growth startups that consistency from the top to bottom of the hierarchy is the best approach.
At Ladder.io, a desire for consistency motivated Taylor to lead by example. “From a culture perspective, everyone looks at what the cofounders do to pick up cues of how they should behave as well,” he says. “I think it's really important to get it right.”
On the flip side, Hampus Jakobsson feels that it’s hard for founders to practice what they would preach. A generous paternity policy can capture the company’s values in a way that a founder may not be able to, personally.
He explains: “I think a policy is sufficient – it is enough to communicate what is expected as "normal". Many people understand that it is harder for the founders, so for them to just show that they take any parental leave is a very good example.”
The only way Ladder.io could survive Taylor’s time off-the-radar was to transform the way it handles business.
This has involved taking steps to ensure that Taylor’s strategic thinking could be implemented by others, through leadership meetings to set clear objectives across offices in London, Poland and New York.
It also meant shifting to a less reactive business approach, and trying to avoid urgent problems.
Taylor explains: “At an early stage, you manage to grow the business against all the odds, partially just by brute forcing it. But my own personal ability to just throw long hours at a problem is going to be diminished so we are starting to think a lot more strategically about how to avoid those emergency situations in the first place.”
Jakobsson experienced this too, calling it a shift away from “hero culture”. Instead of depending on one person "doing magic", as he calls it, his nine months off meant they had to implement processes and documentation which made the company more resilient and would scale as they grew.
As an advocate for improving paternity leave, Jakobsson has written repeatedly about his personal growth and benefits he experienced by taking the time off. Inevitably, there’s a positive knock-on effect for the company when fathers return to work.
He says: “It is clear that people grow a lot and gain perspective and planning skills when they have been off on parental leave for three months or more, so it is very useful for the company.”
Paternity is for life
To make an obvious point: childcare obligations don’t disappear after paternity leave is over. So best practice, Ben Gateley at CharlieHR says, is to take a holistic approach when creating a family-friendly culture.
At CharlieHR, the paternity policy itself reflects this; for example, after consulting a number of parents about their paternity and maternity pain points, the company only “starts the clock” on a man’s paternity allowance after the mother and baby are out of hospital.
That way the father ensures his time off coincides with the time he can actually take care of the newborn at home.
I'm actually more concerned about what happens afterwards, when I have to make sure that I look after the baby more than I look after the business
Taylor believes that his company’s support for flexible and remote working is even more important than its approach to paternity leave, since childcare is a far longer period of a father’s life than just the first year after birth.
“I know that the two weeks of paternity leave are going to be a complete blur and I'm going to be a mess and having zero sleep but I'm actually more concerned about what happens afterwards, when I have to make sure that I look after the baby more than I look after the business,” he says. Working from home will give him back the hours to spend with his child that he otherwise would spend commuting.
Another important lifestyle provision at Ladder.io is that the company encourages employees to bring along their families if they have to travel for work (as long as it doesn’t cost the company). It’s a tiny tweak to standard travel policies, but it can make a huge difference for busy employees.
“It's so important, especially when you're in a startup, to remember that there are other more important things outside of work,” Taylor says. “The more that we bring that humanity into our business, the more empathy employees have for each other.”
Startups have a rare opportunity to promote a radically different attitude towards paternity leave, says Gateley. Instead of seeing it as a problem to deal with, a burden on other employees, he encourages founders to celebrate parenthood and reframe it as exciting and important.
“As a company you have a real opportunity and real responsibility to support employees through parenthood,” he says. “We should be excited, and we should be grateful, and we should be upbeat. “Those at the top set the precedent for that.”