THE BLOG

Making Paid Leave Big Enough to Matter and Small Enough to Achieve

05/23/2015 06:27 am ET | Updated May 22, 2016

The public conversation about paid leave is getting louder and more insistent. On Mother's Day, satirist John Oliver skewered the U.S. for "celebrating" mothers, but failing to provide paid family leave. Earlier in the Spring, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez launched the "Lead on Leave" national tour. And Sheryl Sandberg announced that Facebook will require its US contractors with over 25 employees to offer paid leave or new parent support.

The spate of high-profile voices making the case for paid leave is generating awareness, but what will move people to action? In our work, which focuses on advancing women into leadership in the Jewish non-profit sector, we've discovered how to motivate leaders to adopt paid leave. Our pilot, Better Work, Better Life, is a great test case for how to build momentum for this essential policy change.

At the outset, we thought we'd find receptivity for paid leave among Jewish leaders who unabashedly embraced the values of family and community. Yet, when we surveyed Jewish organizations in 2009, we found that 65% did not offer any paid parental leave. The mostly male senior leadership considered paid leave unaffordable; the mostly female workforce (75%) wanted it but was afraid to advocate for it.

The Jewish community's resistance was consistent with national priorities then and now: the United States stands alone among its peers as the only high-income country in the world that does not offer paid parental leave. Women, who are more often responsible for childbearing and caregiving, are disproportionately affected. Today, only 11% of American workers have paid leave.

We wanted to prove that offering paid leave was essential and affordable because changing the norm in the Jewish community would benefit our constituents and could influence national policy. In 2009, we launched the Better Work, Better Life campaign with the goal of enlisting 100 Jewish organizations to adopt paid leave and/or formal flexibility.

The timing was terrible. The country was reeling from recession, and people were grateful to have a job and not eager to make demands. Even our supporters thought paid leave was too small to matter and too big to take on.

We took a page from Jerry and Monique Sternin, whose groundbreaking work applying positive deviance theory to social change was later popularized by Chip and Dan Heath. Rather than focusing on what is wrong and trying to fix it, we decided to find what was working -- the "bright spots" -- to amplify them.

We started with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a human rights organization that already offered a generous paid leave policy. In a forum with Jewish nonprofits, AJWS made the case that the cost of replacing valuable staff is far greater than the cost of paid leave. Even thought 10% of their staff had taken paid leave, 100% returned

Despite AJWS's compelling example, virtually every organization across the spectrum resisted our campaign. Arguments against paid leave ran the gamut: We're too big. We're too small. We're too poor. The board will see it as a luxury. The staff will take advantage.

It took us two years to convince 12 organizations to adopt paid leave.

Each of the early adopters had to overcome internal resistance. UJA Federation of New York became our campaign's most influential bright spot, and its HR Director, Sari Ferro, one of our most effective allies. Ferro shepherded paid leave through her own complex organization and shared her step-by-step process with HR Directors in other organizations.

As a result, Jewish Federations of North America adapted UJA Federation's policies. Recently, JFNA analyzed five years of its data on paid leave and found that only two of the 12 leaves that took place required additional expenditure -- and 100% returned to their jobs. The modest cost and significant benefit of adopting paid leave motivated CEO Jerry Silverman to urge 150 Federation CEOs to consider paid leave.

We broke the gridlock by focusing attention on the bright spots and spurring them to illuminate the path for others. We cultivated allies who weren't always eager to take on this unpopular cause but recognized the benefits: healthy work life policies raise morale, increase productivity, enhance retention and make good business sense. Over time, we collected evidence that showed that paid leave was big enough to matter and small enough to achieve.

This month, the Hillel International Board, with its network of 550 campus organizations, unanimously approved a paid leave policy that met the standards for our Better Work, Better Life Campaign. Our conversation with Hillel about work life policies began in September 2001 and continued through three CEOs, three task forces, and three strategic initiatives. Persistence pays off.

Today we are on the verge of achieving our goal of enlisting 100 Jewish nonprofits. Our community's brights spots have helped reframe the discussion. Increasingly, the question is no longer about whether or not an organization can afford to have paid leave. It's about how and when paid leave will be implemented.

National priorities are also shifting. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island are bright spots that have successfully implemented paid leave; they are demonstrating that paid leave is useful and affordable. We still have 47 states to go. But now we know how to break the gridlock.