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Photograph by Sean Gallup—Getty Images

Most new dads take time off, without calling it paternity leave

Oct 31, 2014

Dear Annie: I’m envious of the people who work for Change.org and other employers I’ve been reading about lately, since those employees can take time off for the birth or adoption of a child without feeling like they’re risking their careers. My wife and I are expecting our second baby soon, and my problem is, not only does my company have no formal policy that allows paternity leave, but I’ve heard my immediate boss make snarky remarks about it. His attitude is, you’re not the one having the baby, so why do you need time off? I’ve been here less than a year, so I’m pretty low on the totem pole and hesitate to make any special requests. But I would like to take a two- or three-week paternity leave when the time comes. Any pointers on how to ask for it? — Anonymous, Please

Dear A.P.: Good question. “American families are evolving, but lots of employers aren’t keeping up,” says Chris Duchesne, a vice president at Care.com. “There is definitely still a double standard when it comes to parental leave.” Even at companies that have formal policies permitting new dads to take time off for their families, he adds, “there has to be a culture of permission. If front-line managers and supervisors don’t set an example by taking paternity leaves themselves”—or, worse, if they diss the idea as your boss does—“then there might as well not be a policy at all.”

That’s too bad, because research on parental leave is piling up, and so far it’s unanimous on one point: Men who work for companies that have a “culture of permission” are far more loyal to their employers than men who don’t. At a moment when companies are worried about retaining talent, that matters.

Consider, for instance, a new report conducted by the Working Mother Research Institute and sponsored by Ernst & Young. Based on a survey of about 1,000 men at an average age of 39, the study says those with access to paternity leave and other kinds of work-life flexibility are happier, more productive, and get along better with coworkers than men who lack that option.

Almost three-quarters (74%) of men in a “culture of permission” said they’re satisfied with opportunities to develop their skills, versus fewer than half (48%) in other places. Satisfaction with career prospects, implying an intention to stick around, was markedly higher, at 72% versus 40%. Male employees with work-life flexibility are even happier with their pay (68% satisfied) than those without (40%). These figures suggest that “we have to shift our thinking to be more inclusive,” says Karyn Twaronite, global chief of diversity at EY. “Men are too often an afterthought in conversations about working parents.”

As a result, men who want or need time off for a new addition to the family often take it, but they do it on the down-low. "Even in many companies with formal policies allowing it, people worry it will make them look less dedicated or less serious about their careers,” says Chris Duchesne. So, especially with bosses like yours, a less risky approach is to piece together a leave using vacation time and any available personal days.

Duchesne points out that an 80% majority of new dads in a recent Boston College study chose this "informal" path to a paternity leave, but he also speaks from experience. At a previous employer with no paternity-leave policy, he took two weeks of vacation for each of his three children, now ages 4, 6, and 9. “I worked it out with my manager and team beforehand each time,” he says.

You need to do that too, just as you would for any other vacation, medical leave, or other planned absence. “Sit down with your boss and talk through how your work will get done, including whether you’ll be reachable at certain times, whether you’ll be checking email, and who has agreed to cover for you on which aspects of your job while you’re out,” Duchesne advises. “Demonstrate that you’ve thought this through. If you have a plan up front that covers all the bases, it will go a long way toward reassuring your boss that you do care about getting the work done, and that things aren’t going to fall apart.”

If you’re thinking about making any other changes in your schedule when you get back—working from home one day a week, or coming in early and leaving early, for example—this conversation is also the time to mention that. “Paternity leave is one event,” Duchesne says. “But you may need support later on for a continuum of different adjustments as your responsibilities change at home.”

For whatever it may be worth to you right now, Duchesne thinks organizations that are still clinging to your boss’s old-school attitudes toward fatherhood are going to have to catch up with the times.

About 40% of the workforce now is made up of Millennials who say they care more about having a life outside of work than they care about money or rank, according to various studies, and they’re quick to quit jobs that don’t offer them the flexibility they want. “Employers will have to respond to that, if they want to stay competitive,” he says. “Millennials are a much larger cohort than Gen X, and they’re going to have more and more influence over the next five to 10 years.” Here’s hoping.

Talkback: Does your company have a “culture of permission” toward paternity leave? If you’ve ever taken one, did you call it that, or use vacation time instead? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.

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