In general, employers offer benefits because they are trying to make life better in some way for their employees. That sounds so obvious it shouldn’t need repeating, but the fact is that it’s not too uncommon for organizations to end up offering benefits that cause more problems than they solve.
When benefits blow up in an employer’s face, the repercussions extend beyond that particular situation. For example, if an employer is finally convinced to support a wellness program and it flops, how much harder will it be to convince the executive team to sponsor another, better wellness initiative later?
Let’s take a look at some employee benefits that are prone to backfiring so you don’t waste any time, money, or executive goodwill you’ve amassed over the years.
1. Unlimited Vacation
I know — I’m a monster for even hinting that unlimited vacation isn’t the cure-all everyone claims it is.
But it isn’t.
Unlimited vacation is a repeat of the results-only work environment craze: The concept is highly lauded and passionately discussed at conferences, but a big fat bust when attempted in real life.
There are countless reasons why unlimited vacation doesn’t scale, all of them rooted in human nature.
For every responsible salaried employee who understands how to manage their time, you’ll have a junior-level sales associate who doesn’t understand he’s not hitting his numbers because he’s gone five business days of every month. For every manager who helps their direct reports manage vacation time and delegate tasks while they’re away, you’ll have a manager who does nothing to plan for employee vacations — or who turns down every time-off request. For every person who understands they are evaluated solely on performance, you’ll have a seasoned middle manager who doesn’t feel right unless they’re always in the office all the time.
Instead of unlimited vacation, simply offer a generous vacation policy. Allow for some days to rollover — but not all, so people actually take time off — and build vacation planning into your performance review process.
2. Check-the-Box Wellness
So you’re committed to wellness, are you? Do your employees know that?
If your whole wellness program amounts to pamphlets on how to quit smoking and a half-hearted fun run, it’s not really a wellness program.
In order for a wellness program to work, it needs to include consistent touchpoints, some financial reward or similar motivator, and options for employees at either end of the health spectrum. For example, one person may be excited about a diabetes-specific HSA that includes their local pharmacy, while their cubicle mate may opt for a gym membership and free healthy snacks. Both should be able to create their own goals, reap rewards for their success, and choose from a wide array of benefits to suit their lifestyle.
3. Discounts on Employer-Produced Goods Only
There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving employees a discount on the products your company sells — especially if your company offers consumer goods like Apple or Nike — but there are a few serious caveats to consider when offering this benefit.
First, ask yourself: Does your company sell something your employees actually want? If not, your discount will feel less like a benefit and more like you’re blurring the line between employee and consumer to create a new revenue channel for the company.
Second: Is your discount really a discount? Ten percent off isn’t even worth driving to the outlet mall. Will your employees really be impressed if that’s all you can give them?
Finally: Is your program too restrictive? Is it only available during a very specific time, for niche products, and/or unable to be combined with other discounts?
If you answered yes to these questions, then congratulations! What you have is not a benefit.
4. All Play, No Work
Do we have a ping-pong table at Red Branch? Yes, we do. Do we also expect that work gets done? Yes, we do.
While very young workers may be attracted to an all-fun-all-the-time atmosphere, that environment would no doubt have a negative impact on business development — not to mention the fact that people generally want to feel like what they’re doing has meaning, which is very hard to feel when your workplace is a slacker’s paradise.
It’s okay to encourage employees to have fun, but that should be balanced with creative, meaningful work that makes employees feel valuable and helps them advance professionally.
5. Meaningless Titles
Remember in The Office when Dwight would argue with Michael over whether he was “assistant regional manager” or “assistant to the regional manager”? That’s what we’re talking about here.
Bad leaders sometimes use meaningless titles to boost morale, but that generally has the opposite effect. When everyone’s a manager, nobody is. Instead, create clear career paths with explicit milestones that let employees know whether they are on the right track to a real promotion.
6. Ridiculous Office Layouts
I recently saw a picture of an office that had a large, maze-like staircase with weird pillows all over it. The benches along the staircase seemed too narrow to sit or lay on; there was no back support. I saw no outlets and, more importantly, no people.
Ditch the fantastical and impractical office designs. They may seem great in your head, but in real life, people have hip and back issues. They need privacy to do their work. They need to plug in their laptops. When you tout your hip new office as a benefit, keep in mind that many candidates will be giving you the side-eye.
7. ‘Everything You Need Is Right Here on Campus’
Do you provide on-site grocery delivery, catered lunches, and a gym next door to the office? While these employee benefits might seem glorious to candidates and new hires, they can have a damaging effect on employee productivity and engagement in the long term.
See, these perks of convenience can make employees feel like they never have to leave your office — which can lead to serious burnout.
When it comes to these kinds of perks, pay close attention to what you’re offering and why. Your employees certainly are. For example, I heard that a large tech company recently offered Wi-Fi on its company shuttles. While it may have been meant as a kind gesture, employees felt pressured to work while on the shuttles. Rather than a perk, this offering turned out to be a bane.
8. Always-On Technology
At Red Branch, we once considered providing employees with a tech allowance for things like cellphones and tablets. It seems like a no-brainer: These tools are expensive, and subsidizing them would feel like a nice pay bump to many employees.
However, we quickly realized the employees would feel inclined to work after hours if they knew their cellphones were being paid for by the company. We didn’t want that kind of pressure on our people, so we dropped the tech allowance.
Although employee benefits can certainly backfire, that shouldn’t stop your from creating a comprehensive benefits strategy that works for your employees and scales with the company. What are some ways to do that? Here are some quick suggestions:
- Think in terms of family rather than maternity when establishing parental leave policies.
- Offer multiple kinds of health plans so your people have options.
- Consider the needs of employees across age groups when selecting savings and retirement plans.
- Understand your workforce is made up of people with varying economic means when thinking about transportation and commuter benefits.
- Don’t forget that learning — formal and informal — can be a huge benefit.
A version of this article originally appeared at Red Branch Media.