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I'm on paid parental leave in California in the United States. What considerations do I have to or should I make if I'd like to leave my job right after parental leave?

Do I legally have obligations to keep working for a certain period of time?

Do I have moral or ethical obligations to keep working for a certain period of time?

How long?

Is there a certain company expectation or industry standard or cultural understanding for me, the violation of which might "burn bridges" or cause animosity by my employer or boss towards me?

I never imagined taking leave and then leaving right when I get back, but I'm in a situation where I think I'd be a better fit elsewhere.

Note that the paid parental leave is 16 weeks, which is incredibly generous--something I've never gotten before. I feel bad taking all this pay to care for my family, and then abandoning the company right after.

Note that this site says technically I can quit even without coming back to work first, which sounds crazy to me, and which I'm very skeptical of because I might be missing some fine print somewhere or something:

You're not legally required to return to work after maternity or paternity leave. You can quit your job at any time, for any reason. Unless you are required by contract to stay in your job for a certain amount of time, you’re an at-will employee and are legally entitled to quit.

In fact, the law does not even require that you give notice before quitting, although many employees choose to give at least two weeks’ notice as a matter of courtesy.

Detailed background information for my particular case: Should I tell my superior I'm thinking of leaving now (start of paid parental leave), after finishing paid parental leave, or when I have a new job?

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Disclaimer: I am not a resident of California, nor am I a lawyer, but I have read some contracts from California-based companies, so I have a reasonable understanding of the standard "at-will" employment system.

My understanding is that California is an "at-will employment" state. What this means is that the employer is allowed to fire the employee at any time, for any reason, without notice, and the employee is allowed to do likewise, to quit, for any reason, at any time, without notice. Right after your maternity leave is certainly "any time", and "feel like I might be a better fit elsewhere" is "any reason", and so you should be in the clear (you should review your contract to make sure there aren't additional stipulations that I'm unaware of).

Now for the ethical question: You can, but should you? You are the only one who can really answer this question in a way that you would feel comfortable with, but here's some perspective:

  1. It is never unethical to play by the rules of the game, provided that you aren't trying to "angle-shoot", i.e. take advantage of some loophole in the rules that is clearly not intended but is a by-product of something else. The rules of the game state specifically: You can quit, and they can fire you, at any time, for any reason. They are not required to show you any form of loyalty, vis a vis things like notice period, severance pay, reference letters, and so on, nor are you required to show loyalty to them in return. If they valued your loyalty and wanted you to feel an ethical obligation to return to work, they would not be an at-will employer (yes, you can be a not-at-will employer in an at-will state; at-will is simply the default if no other rules are set); by being an at-will employer they are essentially saying that they have no loyalty to you, and therefore you should have none to them.

  2. As I answered in a similar question a while back, you should not feel as though your not returning to work will have any kind of negative impact on the company's continuity. It is the job of the senior management at the company to ensure that, if an employee leaves the company under the terms of their contract, that there will be no issue with continuity. If they foresaw an issue with continuity if you choose to exercise the terms of an at-will contract, then they should not have given you an at-will contract in the first place. The fact that they gave you such a contract is proof enough for me that they have contingencies in place in case an employee chooses to exercise their at-will employment rights, and therefore you should not have an ethical issue with doing so.

So, my answer is, if you feel like quitting and finding another job, then quit and find another job. Legally (IANAL and read your own contract to get specific details) you should be in the clear, and ethically, in my opinion, you are also in the clear. So the third question is, will this impact your future job prospects vis a vis your reputation, and my answer to that is simply: Anything you say or do, or even false rumours spread about you that are not actually things you said or did, can damage your reputation. It's really not an issue; either they will talk, or they won't, and you can't really do anything about it anyway. If your company wants to ruin your reputation, they can do so in many other ways and don't need this to help them.

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  • Note that California probably has a large population of employees on employment contracts, which can nullify some elements of at-will. – Gregory Currie Apr 16 at 6:06
  • California also has had employers who had illegal employment contracts (i.e. you were not allowed to work for Twitter if you recently worked for Facebook). Nearly all of the big players in the sector were found guilty of having a "no poaching policy". The end result is that employee salaries were artificially stagnant. – Donald Apr 16 at 16:31
  • The last bit is somewhat disingenuous- sure “anything can damage your reputation,” but to be clear, they will not like this and at a minimum will never consider hiring you again. Whether you should care is up to you. – mxyzplk Apr 16 at 22:38
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From a legal perspective, the biggest consideration would be... do you have to pay that maternity leave pay back or not. Double check your employee handbook, any contracts you signed or whatever.

From an ethical perspective, I'd say it's pretty unethical. The employer is offering paid maternity leave as a perk to recruit and retain employees, presumably. They're under no obligation to offer it and yet they are. You jumping ship is basically taking advantage of their generosity. Less so, I suppose, if they have a "you need to pay us back if you leave within 1 month of your maternity leave ending" or some such, but still, I think it's pretty unethical.

As for how I evaluate whether or not something is ethical or not... I ask the question "what would happen if everyone did it?". Would the paid maternity leave policy still make sense if everyone left immediately after the leave ended? I don't see how it would make sense in that scenario.

If that's not the criteria that you use to evaluate whether or not something is ethical then we can only speculate as to what criteria you'd use. You obviously know your criteria for what constitutes ethical behavior better than anyone else, altho the fact that you're even asking... if you have to ask then the answer is probably no.

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  • Ok, so the company is a bad fit, my performance ratings our low, and I fear they may fire me later anyway. What length of time must I stay after returning to make me leaving ethical, not unethical? I've been at the company > 1 yr and have worked 10~14 hr days the entire time, and have worked some weekends. See the link at the bottom of my question for details. – engineer Apr 15 at 20:18
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    This also begs the question: what are the limits of how can you make this ethical? Let's say someone has worked 60 hr weeks for 10 yrs at the company, then leaves for 16 weeks on parental leave, then comes back, gives 2 weeks notice, and is gone 2 weeks later. Certainly saying that is unethical seems ludicrous considering the massive input to the company the person has done--a total of 240 extra 40-hr weeks of work above and beyond what they were required to do over those 10 yrs, assuming a 40 hr work week is the expectation, and they worked 48 x 60-hr work weeks per year for 10 yrs. – engineer Apr 15 at 20:22
  • ^^ and the expectation is NOT that to take paid parental leave, you must work extra hours...then again, measuring input (hours worked) also is not what matters most, it's output (work completed--but not even that, rather: value provided), which is a whole different story... – engineer Apr 15 at 20:24
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    This answer says the company offers the generous paternity leave as "a perk in order to recruit and retain employees" which I believe is true. So they are offering it for their own benefit, not because they are a charitable organization which shouldn't be taken advantage of. – matt freake Apr 15 at 20:45
  • @mattfreake - an easy way to evaluate if something is unethical: what would happen if everyone did it? Would the policy still make sense? If everyone who was on paid maternity leave left immediately after their maternity leave ended would the policy still make sense? I don't see how. – neubert Apr 15 at 21:20
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Do I have moral or ethical obligations to keep working for a certain period of time?

Talk about how important your family is and most people who act on behalf of the company (that'd be managers) won't dare to object.

I really believe that when you are joining and leaving a company you are in a purely fiscal relationship, which is to say a selfish and adversarial one. The only issue is burning career bridges is a thing, so you need to tend to that and not ruin a recommendation.

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