Tips for having the conversation about taking parental leave
1. Know your rights
The first thing you need to do is to know what your organisation’s policies are in relation to parental and paternity leave. This will help you know what you can and cannot rightfully request from your workplace, i.e. the content for your conversation. Remember that this leave is often split into the leave a father can take upon the birth of their child (short term, usually 2-3 weeks), as well as an extended period of leave as the primary carer which is intended to be taken by your child’s first birthday. If your workplace has such policies for fathers, then you have every right to take this leave. Similarly, if your workplace has flexible working policies, then you have every right to pursue whatever is written in the policy. You should also be aware of the Government's Paid Parental Leave Scheme, which provides dads with access to a range of paid-leave options throughout the first year of your baby's life, such as up to 18 weeks of government funded Parental Leave Pay (at minimum wage for the primary carer, pending eligibility) on top of your existing employer provided paid or unpaid leave. Note that the Paid Parental Leave Scheme does not grant you an entitlement to leave or change any existing employer provided leave entitlements. However, if your employer currently provides paid parental leave through an industrial agreement or law, they can’t withdraw your entitlement to that leave while that agreement or law is in effect. If you do have difficulties when approaching your manager, make sure you speak to your Human Resources representative. The Fair Work Ombudsman can also help you make sure you have completed the required steps when requesting parental leave and provide you with more information about your leave entitlements.
2. Understand your audience
Once you know what your rights to leave / flexible working options are (the ‘what’ of your conversation), you should consider the best way to approach the conversation with your boss (the ‘how’). Make sure that you do your research before your conversation. Try to learn from others what your boss’ disposition will be towards parental leave / flexible working arrangements before you speak to them to help you prepare the best approach to take in the conversation. Have other dads in your workplace taken parental leave? If so, what can you learn from their experiences? Did they come up against any obstacles? Is there anything they would do differently next time? No doubt your own colleagues will be the best source for sharing advice and tips on the best way to have the conversation with your boss. Use this information to work out the best way to shape the conversation with your boss.
3. Empathise, don't sympathise
Even if your boss is a supporter of parental leave, understand that paying your wage for up to 18 weeks could cause a stress on the business. Your boss will likely start thinking about how to cover your role while you are gone and where the extra revenue needed to cover both your wage and your potential replacement while you are away. Be clear in your own mind that this isn’t your problem - it is one of the many costs of doing business, but it is helpful to understand the impact to your boss when you approach the topic of parental leave. You should NEVER feel guilted into not taking parental leave - this is the difference between sympathising (personally feeling the emotions that the other person I’d feeling) versus empathising (understanding the feelings of the other person’s scenario without becoming personally invested). Showing sympathy in this scenario could lead you to making concessions e.g. about how long you are out of the business, that you shouldn’t feel obliged to make. Unless you are the boss, the running of the business is not your responsibility, so you don’t need to sympathise. However showing empathy will help you to hold your ground in what is important to you while making the conversation easier because you can still show that you understand your boss’ reaction to your request. You may even be able to identify alternate solutions that will help comfort your boss, discussing how to ensure an effective handover period before you leave.
4. Put yourself in your manager’s shoes
If your research from other colleagues suggests that your boss may have a negative reaction to your request for parental leave / flexible working arrangements, placing yourself in their shoes can also help you to plan for any obstacles they may raise in the conversation. For example, if you know that your boss is likely to reply that ‘I/my partner never got to take parental leave, so why should you?’, then you can be prepared with an appropriate response, rather than being caught off guard and risk the conversation being derailed. Once you have done your research, try imagining yourself in your boss’ shoes and brainstorm all the likely scenarios (good and bad) of how the conversation math plays out. Then write down your responses to each scenario so you can be properly prepared for your conversation, and be better able to show empathy while having it!
5. Be mindful of timing
Parental leave will typically include requirements for giving notice prior to taking leave, which could be as much as 18 weeks prior to your first day of leave (the Department of Human Services recommends providing a minimum of 10 weeks notice prior to your intended date for commencing leave). The longer time period you are able to give notice, the more time the business will have to plan for your absence. However you may also want to consider the impact of other circumstances in your timing, e.g. pending decisions on promotion or other day-today crises that may impact or distract from your conversation. Make sure you provide sufficient time, but where possible, try to time your notice so that it has the best chance of being received favourably.
6. Be direct in asking you want
As with any negotiation, you need to have a clear understanding of i) what the best result looks like for you, ii) which aspects you are willing to compromise iii) your minimum requirements (i.e. non-negotiables) that you are not willing to compromise on. Your workplace policy for parental leave may have options for taking leave in bulk, to taking leave on a part time arrangement spread over the course of the year (e.g. essentially working 3 days a week while taking the other 2 days as paid parental leave). Your workplace may even have a preference and try to guide or pressure you to choose the option that is most preferable to them, so make sure you know what your options are and have a firm decision on what you want before having the conversation. Similarly with flexible working arrangements, know what will and won’t work for you in order to get the job done prior to the conversation so you are prepared to get the best result from your negotiations.
Listening is one of the most important skills but easiest to forget to do properly during difficult conversations. Especially if the conversation gets heated or emotional, it is very easy to listen to the angry voice in your head rather than what the other person is saying. Remember that listening does not mean being silent while you think of what to say next. Listening involves hearing, processing and understanding what the other person is saying and why they are saying it. As Dr. Stephen R. Covey put in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Habit 5), ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ When you properly understand what the other person is saying, you will be better equipped to respond in a more powerful and meaningful way.