Tyson expands paid parental leave as companies continue ‘arms race’ to attract and retain talent

We talked to CPO Johanna Söderström about why her team is investing in parents.
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· 5 min read

In January, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods joined the ranks of companies offering or expanding paid parental leave in the US. The company will offer eight weeks of paid leave to birthing parents and two weeks for employees whose partner gave birth. To qualify, employees must work for the company full-time and have completed at least one year of service.

The move is part of a larger $20 million investment in well-being benefits, which Tyson CPO Johanna Söderström told HR Brew is designed to set the company apart in its bid to become “the most sought-after place to work.” Söderström envisions the benefit as helping full-time hourly and corporate employees bond with their babies and also remain in the workforce.

The US is the only wealthy country in the world that doesn’t have paid parental leave. Tony Guadagni, senior principal at Gartner, told HR Brew that prior to the pandemic, many companies didn’t rise above their baseline legal obligation.

In 2018, when Garter surveyed about a hundred organizations about their leave policies, only 60% of organizations offered some amount of paid maternity leave and 51% offered paid paternity leave. By 2022, a comparable survey showed the percent of companies offering paid maternity and paternity leave had jumped to 88% and 83%, respectively.

Guadagni said that “it’s not a sense of altruism” driving the shift. As clients pose questions about employee demographics, including the representation of women in leadership roles, diversity has become embedded in how companies get work done, Guadagni argued.

And once companies determined that having children was a “drop off” point for top talent, he said they were forced to develop increasingly competitive parental leave offerings. He described the situation, particularly among employers of hourly workers, like Tysons, as a benefits “arms race” where companies are one-upping their competitors in an attempt to differentiate themselves to recruit talent.

Focus on families. Tyson’s extended benefits are the product of two and half years of employee research, Söderström said, which included annual engagement surveys and listening sessions. In the sessions, Söderström said that employees were asked, “What are things that make them worry about [whether] they [can] continue working here? Do they have their needs fulfilled, the benefits, everything that they need to live and thrive?”

The team looked at data gathered by newspapers, by consultancies like Mercer and Willis Tower Watson, and by government agencies—both domestic, like the BLS, and international—to benchmark other parental leave offerings, including those of competitors. They found a broad range. For example, Finland, where Söderström is from, offers 14 months of paid leave; in the US, she said the lower end of corporate offerings was less than four weeks. Gartner’s 2022 Compensation Planning and Benefits Survey suggested a similar spread: 43% of ~100 companies surveyed offered paid maternity leave ofsix weeks or less, 19% offered seven to ten weeks, and 37% offered 11 weeks or more. (Guadagni noted that most companies in the higher end of this range tend to be in knowledge industries.)

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In light of these numbers, Söderström feels that offering eight weeks for birthing parents and two for non-birthing parents is a great “starting point.” (Currently, Tyson has 140,000 workers, and 85k+ are hourly at plants and facilities.)

“We want to try to have equity in our offering,” she stressed. “So that’s why I can say most certainly, we are competitive.”

Not a cure-all. Though the percentage of companies offering paid leave has increased over the last decade, nationwide the rate of parents taking the full time they’re allotted for family leave, including unpaid leave, has barely budged since the 90s. For policies like Tyson’s to be maximally effective, Pam Cohen, chief research and analytics officer at the Mom Project, an organization committed to helping women remain active in the workforce, explained that companies need to create a culture of support.

That begins with pre-leave planning. The best companies, according to Cohen, document transitions of responsibilities and expectations for communication (or lack thereof) during leave. When parents return, Cohen said, the first day should be a “big deal.”

It never ends. Sometimes, Guadagni told us, employees don’t take leave because of anxieties about coming back to a workplace where they may have been replaced. HR can assuage those worries by intentionally welcoming them back—Cohen suggests either hosting a breakfast for the returning parent or buying balloons or flowers. The welcoming, accommodating tone shouldn’t end by noon.

At the best organizations, Guadagni told us, companies recognize being a new parent doesn’t get easier after just a handful of weeks away from work: “The support doesn’t stop once parental leave is over.”—SV

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.