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How Will Netflix's New Unlimited Parental Leave Policy Work, Exactly?

How Will Netflix's New Unlimited Parental Leave Policy Work, Exactly?
Image credit: Caitlin Regan | Flickr

On Tuesday, Netflix announced a new parental leave policy that allows parents to “take off as much time as they want” in the year after their child's birth or adoption.

"Parents can return part-time, full-time, or return and then go back out as needed. We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay," Tawni Cranz, the company's chief talent officer, said in a blog post. "Each employee gets to figure out what’s best for them and their family."

The company did not disclose the terms of its previous parental leave policy, nor did it immediately respond to a request for comment.

The move to an unlimited policy appears supremely well-intentioned and it's certainly light years ahead of the majority of company policies' here in the U.S., one of only two countries (hi, Papua New Guinea!) that doesn't have government-mandated paid maternity leave. The government only stipulates that new parents get 12 weeks of unpaid leave, during which time their job is protected.

It's unclear how, exactly, Netflix's new policy will play out. The introductory post – which makes the excellent point that "experience shows people perform better at work when they’re not worrying about home" – is short on details. While it states that under the new policy, employees will still need to work "with their managers for coverage during their absences," it doesn't get into how this process will work. What if, for example, a manager is unable to find coverage? What does the unlimited parental leave policy mean, practically, in that case?

Related: These Are the Countries -- and Companies -- With the Best Paternity Leave Policies

It's important to note that Netflix already has an unlimited vacation and sick day policy, both because its new parental leave policy is really an expansion of this existing one, but more importantly because it provides a window into the tricky nature of 'unlimited' policies in general.

An unlimited vacation policy sounds great in theory, but it can get complicated. There's the potential that employees will abuse it, of course, but more insidiously, it can make it harder for employees to get away from the office. Having to divvy out a finite number of vacation days can be frustrating, but it also makes them feel tangible and earned. Once they're unlimited, the justification for taking off becomes less clear-cut.

Some companies have worked around this psychological block by instituting mandatory vacation minimums, which could also potentially work for Netflix's parental leave policy.

Bottom line: This isn't a bad development. Netflix's work environment may indeed make it easy for new parents to take off the time they need to achieve work-life balance. It's just that an unlimited policy – while a good step – won't necessarily ensure this on its own.

Related: Johnson & Johnson Just Gave New Parents Seven More Weeks of Paid Leave