Failure to Update: An Institutional Perspective on Noncompliance With the Family and Medical Leave Act


  • This research was supported by grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the National Science Foundation (SBR-9701512), the Life Course Center, and a Faculty Summer Fellowship at the University of Minnesota. My thanks to the respondents, to Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev for their collaboration on the larger project and comments, to Samantha Ammons and Eric Dahlin for research assistance, and to John Budd, Ann C. Crouter, Sally Kenney, Candace Kruttschnitt, David Knoke, Phyllis Moen, Evan Schofer, Robin Stryker, Joachim Savelsberg, Mark Suchman, Pam Tolbert, Chris Uggen, and the editor and reviewers for helpful comments. Previous versions were presented at the 2004 meetings of the Law & Society Association, the 2005 meetings of the American Sociological Association, the University of Minnesota, and Penn State University. Please address correspondence to Erin L. Kelly, 909 Social Sciences, 267 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455; e-mail:


At least one-quarter of covered workplaces violated the parental leave requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) when surveyed in 1997. What explains this noncompliance? Using a survey of 389 U.S. workplaces and qualitative interviews with managers in 40 organizations, I demonstrate that noncompliance comes in distinct forms. Some forms of noncompliance result from a failure to update institutionalized—and gendered—policies, practices, and norms. This form of noncompliance (indicated by illegally short leaves) is better explained by the institutional perspective, while outright noncompliance (as evidenced by a lack of leaves) is best explained by rational choice and deviant culture theories.