Annie Foley: “I was very open about how hard it is to be a mother”

“How I Won” series

by Nhu Tien Lu, PL+US

Annie Foley is an H.R. professional currently working with Fentress Architects, an international design firm headquartered in Denver, C.O., with just over 100 employees. In late 2018, Annie successfully advocated for short-term disability coverage for all employees and is actively working on improving their paid family leave policy.

“While having children and working full-time, I was also pursuing my Master’s in Strategic Human Resources. I chose to research paid family leave for my thesis because it was an issue that was very present and pressing to me. It’s obviously one that our country struggles with and I wanted to learn about why it’s so complicated. It’s important that we address the best way to support employees throughout their whole life cycle.”

As an H.R. professional, what drew you to the topic of paid family leave?

Four years ago, I was six months pregnant with my first child while interviewing for a new H.R. position at another firm. The whole process was rather anxiety-ridden. I did not qualify for F.M.L.A. at the new company, so I just had unpaid leave when I gave birth. For my second child, because I had been with the firm for a couple of years and worked myself into an essential position, I was able to negotiate for paid maternity leave.

My husband works at a place that has paid paternity leave and he wasn’t sure whether or not he would take the paternity leave. I was very open about how hard it is to be a mother. I told him, “I need you to take the leave because I need you to help me. Physically, it’s a hard recovery, and society thinks I have it covered, and you may think I have it covered, but I don’t.” Also, there’s no primary parent; you need both parents.

What was the main challenge you encountered in advocating for a paid family leave policy?

Architecture is very male-dominated and our leadership is almost entirely male, even though about half of our staff members are female. Just last week, Fentress elected our first female principal architect. So originally, when I brought up the idea of having a paid family leave policy at the beginning of the year, I wanted to do a temperature check. I checked in with the C.F.O. and was told that essentially, no one cares about this issue and it’ll be an uphill battle. This wasn’t surprising considering that the leadership is made up of all men over age 50, many of whom had stay-at-home wives and adult children. I was wished good luck and I think they thought that I would drop the issue, but I stayed on it.

How did you address the assumption that no one cared about paid family leave?

I conducted an anonymous benefit survey for all of our staff, and it turned out that the three things our employees were most worried about were flexible working accommodations, paid family leave, and high medical deductibles. There were also issues with low engagement and morale which, coupled with the current low unemployment rate, meant that we had retention and hiring challenges.

So I did a presentation to leadership, who were surprised at the low engagement and morale results, and I supported it with the survey to show how there was an overwhelming desire from employees to address the lack of paid family leave. It was clear that it made business sense for us to provide this benefit.

What kind of policy were you able to implement?

I was given leeway to make changes to our benefits as long as no additional money was spent overall, so it was rather limiting. Since I was able to negotiate some savings with our medical insurance costs, that allowed me to offer short-term disability at 60% paid salary for everybody, and to lower the waiting period for short-term disability coverage to one week for pregnancy and zero weeks for accidents.

It’s not as much as I’d like but the strategy is that we’ll make incremental steps. It is definitely an uphill battle. However, now that it’s a sunk cost, I don’t know that we’ll have to keep fighting for short-term disability anymore, so the next baby step is to top off to 100% salary. The goal for 2019 is to build in gender equity and extend coverage of the same value to fathers and partners, and to expand on what is our current traditional definition of family.

What has been the reaction so far?

The first thing someone said to me after I presented on the new benefit was, “Thank you for pushing for this.” Many men didn’t realize short-term disability could cover pregnancy, since they just assumed it was coming from F.M.L.A., so it was a matter of educating people on what the benefit entailed.

The great thing about the whole process of advocating for this policy was that it lead to people talking about it more. We have a Women in Architecture group, and once they saw there was some traction to move on paid family leave based upon the benefits survey, there was a big grassroots push to keep the topic alive.

What advice would you offer to others trying to win a paid family leave policy at their workplace?

Involve your Human Resources department. They need to be a part of it. You can take the temperature of whether or not they’re sympathetic, and if not, you need to see who they listen to. There was a young architect at Fentress who did a great job of starting a conversation with her peers around this issue. Afterwards, she approached me to talk about a policy, not knowing that I had this background already, which I really appreciated. Try everyone.

Also, it has to make business sense. Talk to someone in H.R. or Finance/Accounting who has the numbers. Knowing the numbers makes you sound educated, and they take you seriously because you know more than they do. If they push back, they’ll start arguing on emotion rather than data.

What would you tell CEOs who may be considering whether or not to implement a policy?

Do it! It makes business sense. It creates so much goodwill and increases engagement and morale. It’s great marketing and essential to keeping staff. Plus, it’s the right thing to do and it’s what people need to be good employees. If you can afford it, there’s just no losing side here. And you never know, you may need it yourself one day.

Fentress Architects provides six to eight weeks short-term disability for new birth parents and for personal medical leave. (Annie shared her thoughts with PL+US from a personal perspective and not as a representative for Fentress Architects. Her thoughts and opinions should not be construed as the company’s position.)