It is again that time of year when all of the work-life balance articles come out while we take stock of our benefits and make elections for the following year. During this season, I spend a bit of time thinking back on the benefits statements that I used to get in the military. If you served or were married to a service member, then you know the one I’m talking about. It is the statement that goes into exhaustive detail explaining all of the wonderful things that service members and their families get to take advantage of, without any additional fees, just for serving our country – except many of those benefits are either inaccessible in any practical way, or they are not useful to large groups of service members.
Consider the obvious questions:
- What is the value of a child care facility as benefit to you if you don’t have children?
- How about no- or low-cost elective procedures (e.g. braces, laser eye correction, etc.) if getting such procedures will disqualify you for your job and will stall or effectively end your career?
- The fitness facility? Really? Do you know what the average day looks like for an infantryman? (Hint: Probably not hitting the gym after carrying a 100lb+ pack all day.)
In the military, these statements were mere assertions of what we got for our service, but those in charge can get away with little validation here because most join for reasons other than a great benefits plan. Members join for the mission, the training, family tradition, college money, or a number of other reasons, but benefits packages beyond the basics are rarely on the list.
In a regular company, however, benefits are one of many tools used to capture and retain scarce talent. In this context, it appears obvious that leaders would work hard to validate both the value and utility of benefits from a variety of perspectives represented in the workforce, but this isn’t the case. Companies, like the military, take a limited perspective on what employees need or will use in their lives, and then they assign a value to those trappings, consciously or not, before applying that value to the total compensation used for all employees. This can cause some serious consequences with respect to the groups not considered in the benefits equation, some of which may harm your plans to build a future-oriented workforce.
The main issue is that benefits packages, especially traditional packages, can be a form of unintentional social engineering that incentivizes a certain type of employee to stay, while encouraging another group to leave. A simple example is that a child care facility encourages workers with young families, but is an unrealizable benefit for those who do not have or want children. Any employee capable of performing back-of-the-napkin calculations can see that such a facility is not usable by them, but that they also bear some portion of the cost of having it available given they are missing some other cash or usable fringe benefit in exchange. To a lesser degree, a fitness facility can qualify in this camp, though it is more in terms of the utility of choice (i.e. choosing to work out or not) versus the more absolute utility of a child care facility (i.e. no kids equals no possibility of use).
Assuming a certain value of things based on a limited perspective is always dangerous, and assuming a certain utility of benefits for all employees is dangerous and silly.
When reviewing your benefits packages for your next hires, take time to consider all you offer and whether or not those are important to the type of workforce you are trying to craft. Deliberately consider the pieces that are most important to the employee side of your mission (e.g. a religious organization might observe certain, specific holidays), as well as those that are not as important (e.g. secular organizations might choose to float any observed holidays). Consider the equity relationships for various benefits to make sure that those which cannot be used by some portion of your talent (e.g. child care facilities) are somehow offset by something useful to that group.
Most important, however, is to be deliberate throughout the process. Don’t approach building a benefits package as if it is strictly about money and not about the characteristics and culture of the workforce you hope to recruit and retain. If you dream of a shop with Baby Boomer values, then build a package that appeals to that mentality. If you want a highly flexible, mobile workforce, then forge benefits that appeal to that group and their values.
On a final note, not everyone wants extra days off or lattes in the break room, and that’s okay. Just make sure nobody is being penalized by being indirectly “paying” for benefits that they do not or cannot use. Unless, of course, you want to drive those people away.
About the Author:
Dr. Philip D. Mann is an experienced trainer, speaker, and problem solver who gets things done. His primary expertise is employee engagement and the people side of how organizations grow and (resist) change. He also knows a thing or two about the government works, and those principles apply to all large, bureaucratic structures. If you need help getting things done, reach out to Dr. Mann here on LinkedIn or at www.we-hc.com.