Things HR Must Consider When Providing Parental Leave

Legal, Ethical, and Work Coverage Issues When an Employee Has a Baby

Pregnant Worker on Assembly Line
A factory worker continues her work assembling irons for Sunbeam during her pregnancy in Coushatta, Louisiana. | Location: Sunbeam Factory, Coushatta, Louisiana, USA. Philip Gould / Getty Images

Paid or not, 80% of parents take a work leave following the birth of a child. So while soon-to-be-parent employees are busy painting nurseries and reading What To Expect, you can start planning for their leave.

When it comes to parental leave, HR must cover a lot of bases. You are legally required to do some things while you must do others in order to keep the work flowing and take care of employees who are new parents.

Your parental leave checklist must have these to-dos:

Know the Rules

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t require paid maternity or paternity leave, but the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires 12 weeks of unpaid leave for eligible employees.

Understand this law and what employees are entitled to receive. For instance, employees aren’t required to take the full 12 weeks in one chunk - they can take the time intermittently.

Birth moms, partners, and adopting parents all qualify (assuming they meet the criteria). Get to know this law, as well as any other laws in your state (California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island have specific paid-parental-leave laws, so look closely).

Write a Formal Policy

Document the company’s policy. Yes, abide by the laws, but your company can decide other details. Consider these options.

  • Will the paid time off run concurrently with FMLA time? If employees receive two weeks paid time, decide if that time will run separately or concurrently with FMLA time.

    If it runs separately, employees could potentially take 14 weeks off. If it runs concurrently, simply pay them during two of the 12 weeks they’re entitled to through FMLA.
  • Will you have a universal plan? If you offer a period of paid time off to employees, decide if every parent will receive the exact same amount of time off or if different situations will receive different treatment.

    For instance, should birth mothers receive two weeks of paid time off, but adoptive parents or non-birthing partners receive one week paid? That’s up to the company, but get it written down so similar situations are treated consistently.

Coordinate Work

Make sure managers work with employees well in advance of parental leave to coordinate work while the employee is gone. Get all of the details covered, clear down to having their emails forwarded to a coworker (if necessary).

This will decrease stress on coworkers and eliminate potential bottlenecks. Managers can work with their team to cross-train responsibilities, which comes in handy not only for parental leave but also when losing an employee for other reasons.

Remember Employee Privacy

Not everyone wants the entire company to know they’re expecting or have had a baby. And actually, HR isn’t required to even tell managers specifically why an employee is out on FMLA (although they will likely know why an obviously pregnant employee is suddenly gone for a few weeks).

Consider how openly the employee discussed the pregnancy with coworkers and act with respect. If the employee wants to circulate pictures of the newborn on the company social site or via email, great! But you shouldn’t do it.

Make Benefits Accessible

Benefits are important during a pregnancy and birth, and lack of them or confusion about them generates stress for employees. Almost ​all employees want benefits communication customized to life events. While health needs are impossible to predict, they’re certainly easier to anticipate when someone is expecting a child.

It’s a thin line to walk, but provide as much help as possible without disrespecting privacy. For instance, it’s inappropriate to tell a pregnant employee that your health provider has a nursing support hotline unless they specifically ask.

You don’t have any idea what choices they’ll make for their child), but you can still help by reminding them that the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) has good support resources.

Have a secure system online where employees can access details about benefits or give employees copies of applicable paperwork. Whenever possible, direct employees to places where they can research and find answers. This results in less work for you and empowers them to navigate and explore benefits on their own, all while respecting privacy.

Provide Flexibility

People want flexibility but draw the necessary lines. The new title of parent doesn’t make it acceptable for full-time employees to only work 25 hours a week. It probably isn’t reasonable for employees to bring their new baby to work all of the time. However, it’s probably not a huge deal if Erica arrives at 9:15 am while figuring out the daycare drop-off thing.

Flexibility can help employees adjust to their new responsibility. Employees should have a team of people who support them at work, and offering flexible hours illustrates your support.

Some companies find it mutually beneficial to allow employees to slowly ramp back into working. Allowing employees to come back part-time for a few weeks gives them the option to bring in money while not getting overwhelmed. It also eases the burden of having an employee out of the office.

If employees use all their FMLA time but still need a little more time to recover, try to extend it with unpaid leave time. Or, if employees don’t qualify for FMLA (and according to paid parental leave advocates, 40% of U.S. employees don’t), try to accommodate them anyway.

Create a Contingency Plan

Flexibility may also benefit the company if a position change is requested before or after an employee takes parental leave. For instance, a parent may want to cut back hours or switch some (or all) of their work time to telecommuting to stay home with his or her new child.

You are only legally required to restore a position of equal pay, benefits, and prestige to an employee returning from FMLA, but employees might work more effectively if additional adjustments are made.

Not all companies can afford to make those changes, but sometimes accommodations are possible. Some parents want to change their work plan following a birth and may cut work out of their plan entirely. And don’t assume only female parents will choose to leave the workforce behind; the number of stay-at-home dads almost doubled between 1989 and 2012.

Consider Employee Benefit Changes

With all the excitement of a new baby, employees may forget that the new bundle of joy is also a new dependent they need to add to their health insurance plans. Remind employees of the dates and windows where they can and need to change their benefits elections.

Other benefits changes to consider relate to employees taking leave. During unpaid FMLA leave, employees won’t collect a paycheck. How will they pay for their benefits premiums? (Legally, if they’re using FMLA time, the company must provide coverage, so figure out a way that they can still make their contribution.)

You need to make decisions about several other matters of policy for your handbook and implementation.

  • Decide if employees will continue accruing time off during their leave. If they won’t accrue, take this into account when calculating time off or adjust for this leave in the company’s time off software.​
  • If employees won’t return after the birth, cash out vacation time on the final paycheck if this is stipulated in the company’s vacation policy.​
  • 3) Check the vacation policy to determine whether employees can append any accrued vacation time onto the parental leave or FMLA time they’re already taking.

All these details should be included in your time off policies. If they aren’t, add them so that each employee is treated equally.

Be Sensitive

Occasionally, the birth of a child is not a celebratory event in people’s lives. Unplanned pregnancies happen. Late-term miscarriages and infant mortality are devastating. An employee may choose to place their child for adoption or terminate a pregnancy. Approach any of these situations with sensitivity and respect.

Work with the employee and the employee’s manager to sensitively handle transitioning back into work. Also, consider some situations (like miscarriages) in the company’s bereavement policy.

Painful life events are difficult for employees but also difficult for the people at work who care about them. Think about how the company can sensitively (and privately) handle these situations beforehand.


A small, nice gesture from the organization will remind employees that they have a team of coworkers cheering them on back at the office. Wait a few days after the birth to make sure everything goes well, and then send some flowers, a card, or a onesie. Consider what that employee will appreciate (if they’re very private, take that into account), and try to individualize the gesture.

Think about Post-Baby Accommodations

For many companies, parental benefits don’t end when parental leave does. Consider what accommodations employees will need or appreciate. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires companies to provide nursing mothers with break time and somewhere private “to express breast milk.”

Working parents without a stay-at-home partner will also likely need childcare - which ranks as the biggest budget item for American families (on average, American families spend $18,000 per year on it).

Consider Additional Benefits for Employees

Consider creating some type of childcare benefit for employees like subsidizing costs or even providing on-site or close-to-work childcare options. 83% of employees who have childcare benefits say that this helps them reduce stress and increase work-life balance).

When it comes to childcare benefits, employees will appreciate the help and the only limit is in how creatively you can approach the benefit (and what the company can afford and accommodate).

Help employees have a restful - not stressful - parental leave while ensuring the business is adequately taken care of both while they’re gone and when they return.

Follow the rules and establish guidelines to ensure compliance and fair treatment.

Big changes in the lives of employees are exciting and a transition for everyone. With a little planning, you can navigate parental leave with ease.