Labor Day could be called the first widely provided employee perk. A New York City march in 1882 brought 10,000 people out to demand a day off in honor of labor. Labor Day became a national holiday 12 years later. Since then, study after study has tried to determine what makes employees happy.
The answer to that question has changed frequently throughout the 21st century, some say on the basis of generational differences. I often think that the changing responses are a result of the news of the day. Not long ago, employees were looking for job stability; that ended once it became clear that no company, from General Motors on down, could be counted on for stability. The metric soon changed to job satisfaction—caring about your job, feeling your opinion is valued, being involved in the product and process, feeling an inherent part of the group.
A decade ago, we believed productive employees were the result of absolute engagement—the ping-pong playing, kite flying, gaming culture in which work and play seamlessly intertwine. If we add workplace laundries, haircuts, massages, spas, concerts, and free food, employees never have to leave the workplace. Are you worried about your dog? No problem—many companies say bring him to work, too.
But we’ve rebounded from that groupthink on company premises, with a return to many of the traditional individual benefits. A good health insurance plan is now leading the list of benefits that new employees prize most. As a corollary to health care, wellness programs are becoming a frequently requested benefit, ranging from free gym membership to yoga breaks during the workday. The concept has been extended to “financial wellness” programs now offered by many companies—along with student loan repayment programs, which can be the key to financial wellness.
It’s not Just the Dough, Boy
Some employers are taking advantage of their individual product to keep employees in the fold. Ben and Jerry’s employees are offered three pints of ice cream to take home every day. Airbnb gives employees $2,000 in free travel on the site every year. Employees at Cleveland-based Quicken Loans get free tickets to basketball games and shows at Quicken Loan Arena. Of course, employers are wise to take advantage of these unique benefits.
Many employees are also ranking time off as the benefit they seek most. For the past 14 years, Netflix has had an unlimited vacation policy with no mandatory work hours—take all the time off you want as long as you get the job done. Remote working arrangements and four-day workweeks are frequent variations on that theme.
The trend toward more time off isn’t limited to high-tech employers; it extends to the most brick-and-mortar all-American employers.
In 1866, Cadwallader Washburn built a flour mill on one bank of a waterfall in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and three years later, Charles Pillsbury built a mill on the other bank. In 1928, their merged company would be listed on the New York Stock Exchange as General Mills. The market crashed a year later, but General Mills survived and thrived, employing 40,000 people today. The company recently took a page from the high-tech playbook, announcing a revamped Gold Medal benefit package for its employees. General Mills will now offer new birth mothers up to 20 weeks of paid time off, and new fathers, partners, and adoptive parents will be eligible for 12 weeks off with pay. Moreover, General Mills has increased its bereavement leave benefit to four weeks, signaling a nationwide trend.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Some of these new benefits have an unintended cost. It has been reported that free food may add 2,000 calories a week to an employee’s routine diet. Levi Strauss is offering its employees free genetic testing, but the medical community cautions that universal genetic testing for people without identified risk factors might do more harm than good. Some companies will agree to pay to freeze employees’ reproductive eggs—but is that an employee perk or a ploy to make employees work more? When you bring your pet to work, how will your employer accommodate employees who are allergic—or who just hate dogs?
It’s remarkable how far we’ve come in developing perks for our employees, whether they work for Betty Crocker or the Jolly Green Giant, in Old El Paso or Hidden Valley. As you try to recruit good talent, an innovative Total benefit package should be one of the Trix up your sleeve.
Mark I. Schickman is of counsel with Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP in San Francisco and editor of California Employment Law Letter. He can be reached at 415-541-0200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.