In a country where most families have at least one working parent, small business owners should be mindful of the challenges facing employees with children.
While employers may fear that family-friendly policies cut into profits, experts and advocates for working families insist this is not the case.
"Without question, it is a smart business decision, and it is the right thing to do," said Amy Beacom, founder and CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership. "Every single employee is part of a family. Whether that is their family of origin, their chosen family or their newborn infant."
Almost 89 percent of families with children in the United States included one parent working in 2014, and about 60 percent of those families included two working parents, according to recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Small business owners might be unsure how to best meet these parents' needs. Experts suggest businesses start with the following.
Paid/unpaid leave time
Parents want a clear and transparent parental-leave policy and procedure, Beacom said.
This should include a certain number of paid and unpaid days off, clear policies about what to do when the parent leaves and comes back to work, and a clear communication plan for how to meet the parents' needs in this time of transition.
Paid leave time can be very difficult for small businesses to provide, said Rachael Ellison, a Brooklyn, New York-based business consultant and coach. However, states such as New Jersey offer temporary disability insurance, and employers can help their employees apply for similar assistance programs.
New parents will still have new responsibilities at home when they return to work, and may need more flexible hours, job-sharing or telecommuting options if possible. Ellison said to implement these policies, employers should work with their employees to develop a clear, transparent plan setting out what will be the workers' new responsibilities when a co-worker is out on leave.
"Flexibility is very important, but what's even more important is to have communication around work flow," Ellison said.
New parents have new distractions, Ellison said, and may not be able to work at the level they did before, but employers should realize that this situation will only be temporary.
Space for breastfeeding
A private and comfortable space for breastfeeding is, along with a clear leave policy, something that all employers should have, Beacom said. In its toolkit "Maternity Leave and Return," the Healthy Mothers Workplace Coalition recommends employers communicate a clear policy regarding breastfeeding to their employees, provide a private area — which cannot be a bathroom — with accommodations like a sink and refrigerator if possible. Employers should also outline a policy by which mothers who are being harassed for breastfeeding or taking time to expel milk can lodge a complaint, the coalition says.
"Creating and implementing a breastfeeding policy is neither complicated nor expensive, and can bring peace of mind and clarity to employees," the organization states in the report. The recommendations go on to say that breastfeeding policies can lead to increased loyalty, productivity and retention from new mothers.
Equal consideration for all parents
Businesses also need to recognize that not all families look the same and that parental needs don't apply just to mothers. In fact, 89 percent of the 1,000 fathers surveyed in Boston College Center for Work and Family's "The New Dad" study rated parental leave as important. Employers must be aware that fathers will also need time and resources to care for their children and may not be able to perform at the same level they did before becoming fathers.
Beacom said as more and more millennials enter the workplace, they will have no tolerance for policies that are unequal or fail to consider nontraditional families. Leave time must be equal for all genders, and working parents must have equal representation at all levels and advisory positions.
"So often our default is based on antiquated ways of working and thinking," Beacom said, "but as soon as you realize that the people entering the workforce have no tolerance for a life that does not involve enjoying the fruits of their labors with family and friends, or that the traditional father as breadwinner/mother as homemaker duo no longer exists, the sooner you can ensure your small business stays relevant and viable into the future."
Culture of caring
As employees take on increased nonwork responsibilities, employers must show an interest and consideration in their employees' needs and lives, Ellison said. This can be as simple as checking in once in a while to see how the employees are feeling and doing.
"What's most important … from a business owner's perspective is that they're able to kind of model the behaviors they want to see in their employees," Ellison said.
Developing family-friendly policies can take some time and consideration. Ellison consulted for one company in Pennsylvania that needed 50 hours to create a comprehensive plan for flextime and sharing responsibilities, but the results were well worth it, she said.
While it may be tempting to lose employees who become new parents, employers must keep in mind that the job search and retraining of a new employee will ultimately be more expensive and time-consuming than working through family-related issues with parents.