It’s not just about the money

Reducing benefits has become one of the easiest ways for employers to reduce employee costs. On the surface, this may sound like good financial sense because employees are almost universally the largest cost on a company’s books and employee benefits typically can add up to 19 percent or more of an employee’s salary or wages. But not all companies have resorted to slash-and-burn tactics with employee benefits.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the most successful businesses are the ones that have the best employees, and the businesses with the best employees provide those employees with incentives to stay loyal.

An employer serious about hiring the best people commits suicide if it doesn’t offer more than a salary and a clean cubicle. Standard benefits are almost universally a package that includes some form of paid time off, company paid medical insurance and possibly a retirement plan.

So, if everyone offers the standard package, what can an employer do to attract and keep top quality candidates? Some companies are getting creative in their offerings and giving employees more than just the health/vacation/pension package.

At DAXKO in Birmingham, Ala., each employee gets $50 per quarter to participate in a group activity with co-workers. Teams have gone white-water rafting, wine tasting and horseback riding. A group of engineers pooled their money to buy an air hockey table.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta started throwing baby showers for expectant and adoptive moms and dads before mom’s due date. The result: Now 90 percent of new moms return to work compared to 64 percent before the program was adopted. Each expectant parent gets a backpack which includes a baby blanket and information about how to transition back to work after the baby is born or adopted.

The HR Specialist, a family of products geared to human resources professionals, reports that at a Michigan-based accounting firm Plante & Moran human resources personnel pair expectant moms with those who have recently had babies so they can ask questions and get support. Buddies meet on company time, go out for lunches and participate in relationship-building exercises. Buddies also help new moms make a successful transition back to work.

Foreign-born workers of Cascade Asset Management in Madison, Wis., can take English as a second language classes on site at no cost.

“It shows employees that we are committed to them as people and not just as employees,” said HR Director Jennifer Peters.

When Sarena Software, a California firm, began Facebook Fridays the goal was to encourage staff to spend an hour each week on the popular social networking site updating their profiles, collaborating with colleagues and clients, and recruiting for the company.

In an article titled “Fringe Benefits: Unique Employee Perks,” Ilya Leybovich wrote, “At the very end of the spectrum are the kinds of rare benefits that defy traditional classification.”

Among them are:

n Provide on-site pickup and return for dry cleaning and laundry;

n Allow employees to use company vehicles for their daily commutes;

n Serve locally grown organic snacks at work;

n Hire professional cleaners to tidy up employees’ homes every two weeks;

n Provide elder care support;

n Provide backup care for loved ones when employee can’t miss work;

n College admission support or homework help;

n Pet care or pet insurance;

n Bulk purchase memberships;

n Group homeowner or auto insurance.

One benefit that has to be near the top of the list of the world’s most unusual is provided by Tokyo-based Hime & Company. It believes that employees need time to cry and come back to work refreshed when heartbroken.

“Staff aged 24 years or younger can take one day off per year, while those between 25 and 29 can take two days off and those older can take three days off,” according to company policy. The differing amounts of time recognize that as the women grow older, it is tougher to find a new love.

The same company, by the way, offers time off for shopping sales each year.

Humphrey and Pace, a benefit planning company in Medford, Ore., allows employees to bring their dogs to work (small dogs only, please). It not only goes well with employees, but many of the clients love to be greeted by a happy pet with a wagging tail when they arrive for their appointment.

Some employers take health care to a new level.

Home-improvement retailer Lowe’s, in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, offers heart surgery procedures at no cost to full-time employees and dependents enrolled in its self-insured medical plan. The company also has two mobile health units crisscrossing the country to provide more than 70,000 employees with free basic health screenings.

American Specialty Health of San Diego offers a variety of alternative medical treatments including massage, acupuncture and chiropractic. Employees also get cash rewards of up to $400 a year for reaching physical activity goals.

Few compare, however, with the $4 million fitness complex featuring exercise rooms and basketball courts installed by NetApp, which earned the data storage company a No. 6 ranking in Fortune magazine’s 100 best companies to work for.

Google Inc. understands the power of company loyalty through benefits. In its founding letter, Sergey Brin and Larry Page illuminate this importance: “We provide many unusual benefits for our employees, including meals free of charge, doctors and washing machines. We are careful to consider the long-term advantages to the company of these benefits. Expect us to add benefits rather than pare them down over time.”

Brin and Page know the formula: More benefits means happier employees, happier employees means more company loyalty, and more company loyalty means increased profits.

However, not all companies can afford to spend big bucks on unusual employee benefits. Fortunately, there are many free or low-cost benefits that can increase employee satisfaction and boost company morale:

n Offer interest-free computer loans, through which companies purchase the computer and set up a payment plan with the employee;

n Offer free sodas or subsidize soda and snack vending machines;

n Have regular movie nights, including refreshments, where employees and their families can attend a local theater together to see the latest new releases.

Examples of some of the benefits local Las Vegas companies are providing for their employees include the following.

Andy Katz, president of Manpower Inc. of Southern Nevada, has purchased tickets for group outings to Las Vegas 51s baseball games and University of Nevada, Las Vegas football games. Attendance is open to all employees and their families. The UNLV games include a tailgate party in the stadium parking lot before kickoff.

The HR Specialist reported that Station Casinos used a 20-question “dream survey” to find out what employees really wanted out of life. Then the 14,000-employee company created some unique benefits around those dreams. Examples include allowing employees to buy computers through payroll deduction, bringing in financial experts to teach people how to save to buy homes and hosting citizenship classes for foreigners wanting to become citizens. What was the most popular survey-inspired benefit? The company negotiated with 100 local businesses to offer discounts to its employees.

MGM International announces on its website that the company offers a Children’s Choice Learning Center dedicated to creating a nurturing environment for employee children in five locations throughout Las Vegas. The Learning Centers offer 24-hour early care and education; Sniffles & Snuggle, a program that cares for mildly ill children; and state-of-the-art security among others.

In developing your employee benefits program, compare your benefit package to competitors and solicit staff feedback. The best benefits are the ones desired by the workforce and are competitive in the marketplace.

Studies have shown that there is a difference between what employees want and what managers think employees want. How do you keep your best employees? By understanding what it is employees really want. Here are the top 10 things employees say they want, starting with what’s most important to them:

1. Full appreciation for work done.

2. Feeling “in” on things.

3. Sympathetic help on personal problems.

4. Job security.

5. Good wages.

6. Interesting work.

7. Promotion/growth opportunities.

8. Personal loyalty to workers.

9. Good working conditions.

10. Tactful discipline

On the other hand, this is what managers think employees want:

1. Good wages.

2. Job security.

3. Promotion/growth opportunities.

4. Good working conditions.

5. Interesting work.

6. Personal loyalty to workers.

7. Tactful discipline.

8. Full appreciation for work done.

9. Sympathetic help with personal problems.

10. Feeling “in” on things

This study was first done back in 1946 and has been repeated in 1980, 1988, 1991 and 1997-2001. The answers haven’t changed. They show that employers aren’t taking the time to find out what’s really important to their employees. The studies indicate that employers who believe financial rewards are the best motivators for attracting and keeping the best employees are missing the mark.

The top three things employees want from their employers require soft skills. They want to feel appreciated, which requires the manager be able to show this. This isn’t giving gold stars or a $100 bonus; it’s speaking from the heart and showing your feelings. The employee wants to know they matter to you and are noticed.

Employees want to feel like they are “in” on things. They contribute a large part of their waking lives to their employers and they want to feel connected, that what they do matters. Good managers have the interpersonal skills to establish this connection. Feeling “in” on things means more than a pep talk at company meetings, it’s being included emotionally.

If the manager is discouraged or enthusiastic about a project, she shares this with the employees. If management hides the emotional side of the business and only gives instructions and facts, the employee does not feel “in” on things. It’s important not to confuse sharing discouragement with accusations. Employees are people capable of expressing empathy as well as joy and excitement.

The third requirement, “sympathetic help with their personal problems” can be uncomfortable for managers. However, according to this survey, employees consider this part of the manager’s job.

We’ve discussed a variety of unique, weird, innovative and creative benefits that companies offer employees, but we haven’t mentioned the underlying principle that they all have in common. Companies that successfully retain their best employees engage them and make them feel important to the success of the company. Employees in great companies believe that their opinions and input matter because the employers value that input.

What it boils down to is that you can come up with a thousand ways to reward employees, but until you make them feel valuable, all of the fluff and sizzle is temporary. Managers may be reluctant to hear out an employee who seems disgruntled, but the common thread that runs through almost all disgruntled employees is that they believe management doesn’t listen to them. If your company conducts those annual employee satisfaction surveys you’ll recognize this commonality in the negative comments. They may say it in a number of ways: “Management doesn’t get it.” “Management is out of touch with the front lines.” “My opinions aren’t valued.”

The companies that offer unique benefits do so because they care more for their employees. It goes beyond simply stating that employees are our most valuable asset. It’s more than walking the walk, it’s walking the talk. Company culture runs much deeper than creative benefits; the benefits are simply the outward evidence of a deeper company culture.

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