How Handshake Uses Sparrow to Deliver a Streamlined Employee Leave Experience

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Sparrow x Handshake

When Handshake’s employee population began taking more leaves, they turned to Sparrow for end-to-end leave management support.

Handshake is a game-changing career network and recruiting platform that matches college students and recent graduates with career opportunities in a wide range of industries and locations.

As a company, Handshake is committed to democratizing opportunity. Their mission: to give all students the chance to build the career they want, no matter where they’re from or what school they attend. Using Handshake, students and grads can search for full-time jobs, internships, and mentors.

Since their founding in 2014, the company has grown exponentially; Handshake’s platform currently has 12 million active student users, over 1,400 college and university partners, and over 750,000 participating employers. In 2022, Handshake announced a $200 million Series F funding round (and valuation of $3.5 billion), which they’re using to further their mission and widen their impact.

Behind the software platform’s success are 650+ talented global employees. In addition to supporting dozens of remote employees, the company also has offices in San Francisco, New York City, Denver, Berlin, and London. To keep their employees happy and maintain their growth trajectory, Handshake partners with Sparrow for full-service leave administration.

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Creating an equitable, inclusive company culture

As a people-centric company, it’s no surprise that Handshake cares as much about their employees as they do their customers and partners. “We are very mindful of the fact that our employees are our biggest asset,” said Paloma Thombley, the Vice-President of People at Handshake.

“We’re proud to say that our people aren’t just incredibly smart—they’re also incredibly driven and committed to our mission and doing great work.”

Handshake’s workplace culture—which is rooted in inclusivity and equity—directly aligns with their company goal to democratize opportunity. “As the company continues to grow, we want our employee base to grow along with it,” Thombley said. “That’s why we invest in learning and development, in manager training, in career pathways. We want to show people exactly how they can grow their careers at Handshake.”

Handshake takes great pride in making sure employees have the tools, support, and space to excel in their careers and thrive in their personal lives. The company also offers a variety of benefits that cater to their employees’ mental wellness, financial wellness, and overall well-being. Those benefits include: parental leave, flexible time off and volunteer days, inclusive family-forming benefits, mental health counseling sessions, 401(k) matching, ownership in the company through new hire and performance-based stock grants, access to a financial planner, an annual learning and development stipend, and career development programs.

Handshake’s People team also takes time to review their benefits from an inclusivity standpoint, then make necessary adjustments. “We try to make sure we’re welcoming employees of all backgrounds and family situations,” said Thombley.

“For example, last year we brought on Carrot as a family forming benefit. They focus on offering accessible benefits to all. That was really helpful and aligned with how we think culturally, and how we want to offer benefits that support all employees.”

"One of our biggest pain points was interfacing with state agencies and navigating the uncertainties."

Paloma Thombley Headshot Paloma Thombley
Vice-President of People

The challenge: Managing employee leave manually without a dedicated benefits specialist

Handshake is committed to giving their employees a great leave experience, but for a while they found it difficult to execute their vision internally. “Our system was very manual before Sparrow,” Thombley said. “Our small HR team handled it, but we didn’t have a dedicated benefits specialist.”

Though Thombley’s team carried out as many leave admin tasks as they could while maintaining their other HR responsibilities, a lot of the work fell to the individual employees taking leave.

“That meant that if an employee needed to liaise with California short-term disability or paid family leave, they were on the hook to make those calls directly,” she explained. “The expectation was that the employees would bring us the paperwork, and they would drive the process on their own.”

One of the most time-consuming parts of leave management was double-checking employee paperwork and following up with employees. “If our employees got one thing wrong on the paperwork, it’d get kicked back to them,” Thombley said.

Handshake’s People team was also concerned about compliance. “One of our biggest pain points was interfacing with state agencies and navigating the uncertainty around whether or not things have gone smoothly,” added Thombley. Tracking leave laws, downloading the correct paperwork, and organizing employee information was nothing short of exhausting.

Thombley said it was also tedious to calculate and update payroll for employees out on leave. “Our payroll team would do the calculations with us, but we had to be very rigorous about telling them which weeks or days constituted what type and amount of pay,” she explained. “Then they would do the math and come back to us and cross-check it.”

"We wouldn't be able to sustain the level of customer service we pride ourselves on without Sparrow's help."

Paloma Thombley Headshot Paloma Thombley
Vice-President of People

Tasking Handshake employees with the brunt of leave paperwork and coordination proved challenging, both from an internal administrative perspective and from the employees’ personal standpoint.

“In 2020, I was one of the first people at Handshake to go on maternity leave,” Thombley said. “Despite knowing my way around a short-term disability website and paid family leave forms, I still had an incredibly challenging time going through the process myself.”

When Thombley heard that other Handshake employees had a similarly frustrating experience, she knew the company needed to find a better solution to leave administration.

“Leave isn’t something that’s naturally accessible or intuitive to figure out. If you are about to have a baby, if you’ve just had a baby, if you’re on medical leave, if you’re in the hospital, or if you’re receiving or giving care, you don’t have the time or mental space to navigate the bureaucracy that goes along with this,” she said.

At the end of 2020, Handshake knew they were going to have a big wave of upcoming leaves and wanted a better system in place. “We didn’t think it made sense at that time to bring on a dedicated benefits person, so we started to look at other options that could support our team with the workload,” Thombley explained.

That’s when they found Sparrow.

The solution: Outsourcing leave management to Sparrow

Handshake’s HR team had a few goals in mind when searching for a leave provider: 1) outsource the leave tasks that eat up valuable time and brainspace, 2) find an expert to take over compliance, and 3) give Handshake employees a dedicated point of contact to simplify their leave experience.

“We looked into a few vendors because we needed someone who was going to be available to support our employee population across the US,” Thombley said. “A big part of our population is based in California, but we also have lots of people in Colorado, Washington state, New York, and New Jersey. There are a lot of people in states that have unique disability laws and paid family leave laws, so we needed to make sure we had a platform that was going to work with us.”

Sparrow checked all of Handshake’s boxes. In addition to navigating state leave laws across all of Handshake’s states, Sparrow also took over the leave paperwork for both HR and employees. Sparrow Leave Specialists fill out documents on everyone’s behalf, reach out directly for questions, and keep Handshake HR and employees in the loop with updates on the completion and filing process.

Whenever the team wants more information, all they have to do is login to the Sparrow dashboard. “The Sparrow platform is really intuitive and helpful,” said Thombley. “The fact that we have a dashboard that can show us all the people on leave or who are going on leave in the next six months is huge. I can get a good picture of how many leaves are coming and what we need to do from a workforce planning perspective.”

Thombley also appreciates that Sparrow’s platform acts as a central repository for all their leave documents. “We want to make sure we’re treating documents with sensitive information especially carefully,” she explained. “The fact they’re in a contained place with access controls has made a big difference in how we report and check in on things.”

Another part of leave that Sparrow simplified for Handshake was payroll. “Before, we spent a lot of time making sure we were noting employee compensation correctly, so our employees weren’t getting benefits that would have to be pulled back or getting overly taxed,” Thombley said.

"Sparrow helps us gather insights without manual data collection."

Paloma Thombley Headshot Paloma Thombley
Vice-President of People

Now, Handshake relies on Sparrow to calculate payroll and categorize payment types. “The personalized payroll plan allows us to process payroll on a regular basis without extra work,” added Thombley, “but it’s also incredibly helpful for our employees because they can see exactly how their pay breaks down.”

Sparrow’s support allows Handshake’s HR team to facilitate a greater number of leaves, while maintaining a high-caliber employee experience. “Right now, we have around 30 leaves over the next quarter, which is an immense volume of work,” Thombley explained.

“My team prides ourselves on being responsive to employee needs and maintaining a good reputation internally. We wouldn’t be able to sustain that level of customer service without Sparrow’s help.”

Beyond day-to-day admin assistance, Sparrow also helps Handshake zoom out and look at the bigger picture when it comes to improving their leave policies and reporting processes.

“When you’re managing leaves one by one, doing analytics or reporting on top of that is an extra lift,” Thombley explained. “What we get from Sparrow is the ability to gather insights without having to spend time manually collecting data. We can see how many leaves we had in 2021 and 2022, and we can project that out for 2023 and 2024 and start to look at trends and patterns.”

That extra workforce planning intel also comes with personalized consultation advice from Sparrow. “Sparrow was really helpful in showing us where our leave policy gaps were and explaining industry standards and benchmarks,” Thombley said. “As a result, we’ve changed certain language around leaves and adapted to make sure we’re covering a variety of different types of cases correctly.”

"We have a high bar for what we want to see, and Sparrow delivers."

Paloma Thombley Headshot Paloma Thombley
Vice-President of People

The result: Increased efficiency and a better employee experience

With Sparrow’s personalized support on both the admin and employee side, Handshake has saved significant time and stress. “We were probably spending two to four hours per person on each leave on average—and that’s assuming that everything was going perfectly well,” Thombley said. “If we had more complicated situations, they required more frequent check-ins that were an additional burden on our team.”

Sparrow’s expertise has improved the HR department’s work tenfold. “We gained significant efficiency,” Thombley said, “plus we have confidence in the company managing our leaves day in and day out.”

That confidence extends to Handshake’s employee experience, which Thombley says is a genuinely positive one thanks to Sparrow’s personalized support and handholding. “I love how human Sparrow’s customer service is,” she added. “Sparrow Leave Specialists sincerely want to help employees navigate this complicated and sometimes stressful process.”

Thombley’s firsthand experience is perhaps the biggest indicator of how the leave process has changed for the better with Sparrow. “I recently went on my second maternity leave at Handshake, and the difference was night and day,” she said. “My first maternity leave, I didn’t have that proactive level of service and customer support. I remember getting a call at six in the morning from California disability asking for additional information when my baby was just two weeks old,” she said.

This time around, Thombley was able to trust Sparrow to take care of it. “It was so smooth. I got no phone calls from the state of California, which I was very happy about, and Sparrow kept me updated at every step. It really validated our decision to work with them from a people executive lens and an employee lens,” she explained.

Transforming the leave experience at Handshake has been invaluable for the company as they continue growing and advancing their mission. “We have a high bar for what we want to see, and Sparrow delivers,” said Thombley.

Want to improve employee leave management? Sparrow simplifies the process for people ops and employees taking leave. Explore our offerings or book a demo today.