Secrets to supporting staff through maternity leave: Google Australia’s Sarah Robb


Sarah Robb is the Head of HR and Staffing at Google Australia, a global organisation that needs no introduction. Since 2003, Sarah has worked across multiple countries with Google setting up offices and implementing innovative HR strategies. Her passion is supporting new mothers to navigate working life. Here she shares some practical tips for NFP HR managers on how to create change and innovation in your own organisations.

The best thing about working with people is…

Realising that change can start with one person. For example Google’s “20% projects” (where Engineers have 20% of their time to work on the ‘next big thing’ for Google) have brought about exciting innovations such as Google News, Gmail, and more. It starts with one person, and when you have a group of smart, innovative employees who want to solve big problems, the potential is limitless. I like that by working in People Operations I can help remove roadblocks to leave our employees focused on the big stuff.

You’ve been responsible for hiring people all over the world – what have you’ve learnt about working with people from diverse backgrounds?

Though I’m proud of the diverse workforce that Google strives to have, what I’m humbled by is that there are so many consistencies too. Employees want to come to Google to make the world a better place but they also want to take care of their families and friends, and it seems like most of us are striving for that balance in our lives.

Diverse cultural backgrounds internally help Google reflect our users, and we know that diverse teams are much more successful at problem solving. I’ve learned not to take anything for granted – I shouldn’t expect that a stereotype is an individual’s truth.

What is your favourite HR innovation at Google?

Sometimes I take for granted how innovative Google has been in the HR space. Looking around and seeing that there are no file folders or mounds of paperwork looming over me is a nice reminder! Most recently I’ve been excited about the work Google has done with “Unconscious Bias” training which is showing the data and science behind how our minds work in creating shortcuts that might be inadvertently reinforcing biases and perpetuating harmful stereotypes. We’ve asked that all our employees attend this training and the results have been remarkable; it’s wonderful to have employees speaking a common language around diversity as a starting point.

How do you measure the impact of your HR initiatives?

Google is unapologetically a data-driven company. Our People Operations department has an Analytics team that reviews things like our annual employee surveys. Because Google is built on a culture of transparency, we often tell our employees that we’re gathering data to make it a better place to work and ask for feedback we can use to improve.

You have a passion for supporting women back to work after having children; can you talk us through some initiatives you have put in place for this?

We employ human beings at Google, not widgets, so our focus is on making the transition to maternity leave and back from leave as smooth as possible. We want our employees to be with Google for a long time and so supporting life’s changes is vital to retention.

In the case of mothers returning back from maternity leave, we have a few things in place:

  • A site that gives employees and managers a helpful checklist to prepare to go on leave and to prepare to return from it;
  • Flexibility to talk with managers about their work arrangements when they’re returning;
  • A support network of other Google parents to use as sounding boards; our team of “Expecting and New Parent Gurus” who can meet with a returning mother to serve as a buddy;
  • And then the home-grown, less formal versions of these where our employees just look out for one another given that it’s part of our corporate culture.

Our health benefits in Australia are comprehensive including 18 weeks paid time off (regardless of tenure) at full base salary, and a baby bonding benefit for services like take-out meals, house cleaning services, nappy services, laundry services or gardening services. We have coverage for adoptive parents as well. Finally, I think it’s really important to note the training we give our managers to help support parents and to steer clear of ‘assuming’ what a returning mother will want or not want.

Is there one thing NFP organisations could do to be more supportive of working parents, mothers in particular?

Some of the benefits I outlined that Googlers receive do not cost a thing. For example, “Expecting and New Parents Gurus” are trained employees who are passionate about making a parent’s return to work as smooth as possible. Aside from the time it takes to train someone, there is no cost to a company.

Fostering an environment of supportive managers is also free – it just takes time and training to reinforce the message. Building a checklist for the departing parent and the manager is something any workplace can do. The important theme is that the mother or father should feel supported in this life-changing event.

Sarah presented on how Google’s HR lessons can help make your NFP organisation a great place to work at the 2014 Not-For-Profit People Conference.

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