Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The slow, painful death of the employer benefits package

I was lucky in college -- extremely lucky, in fact -- when it came to my career. At age 19, I landed a job as a benefits specialist for Workscape, Inc., where I worked the entire time I went to school. I took my job seriously and worked hard. I knew a lot was expected of me working for a corporation that size so early in my career.

After completing my 90-day probationary period, I was handled an envelope titled “Benefits Package.” I had no idea what a benefits package was, nor did I care. I threw the package away within a few days of receiving it. There wasn’t anything I really needed, nor did I want to pay for anything that would have taken away from my “fun fund” for weekend parties and shopping trips.

My mother, who covered me under her benefits, felt differently. This became apparent after her open enrollment period opened the following fall. So I finally bit the bullet and enrolled in medical, dental, life insurance, and disability because my mom said I had to.

As I dove into my career in HR, I was quick to learn the value that a benefits package has in attracting good employees and retaining them. Working with companies like GM, IBM and Nokia, it became clear to me from the top down benefits were serious business with employees. Open enrollment period was always a hectic nightmare from August through December. The headaches during that time didn’t even begin to shine a light on the enrollment issues that happened in January and February with the transition from old benefits to new benefits, file transfers to carriers, and let’s not even talk about new id cards for group health benefits. After a year or two it became clear to me that benefits had a major impact on businesses. So I adopted the same thinking.

For decades, employer-provided benefits have been a key to securing and retaining qualified talent. As Baby Boomers leave the work force and Millenials step up, however, businesses are taking a hard look at their benefits packages and their value to employees.

While federal law does not require basic benefits offered to employees beyond workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and accurately paying/reporting wages and taxes for employees, most full-time employees expect to be offered some minimal benefits. In fact, businesses of any size need to consider what benefits they can offer to employees that provide value beyond a steady paycheck and fair salary.

Long gone are the days of basic and boxed benefit packages. Employees in today’s workforce are demanding benefits that add value to their lives in and out of the office. What employees value most differs from workplace to workplace, and from employee base to employee base.

Without employee input, it would unreasonable, unfair and not financially feasible to determine and pay for the benefits you feel your employees value most.

Have you ever conducted a benefits survey or asked your employees what benefits mean the most to them and why? You might be surprised to learn some of the least expensive “benefits” may be the most valued by your employee base.

For example, flexible and fair paid time off programs (including vacation, sick and holiday pay) are one the most highly demanded benefits by employees in companies of any size. Employees need time away from work and don’t want to suffer any economic hardship. Another highly popular benefit that companies can offer are product or services discounts such as company cell phone service discounts or discounted gym memberships. These often cost a company little to nothing but can be used by employees and their family members.

While there is no magical answer as to what benefits should or shouldn’t be offered, it is still clear that the right benefits still have an impact on today’s workforce. Companies should challenge themselves to seek out and offer benefits that are perceived as being valued by their employees if they wish to remain competitive in attracting and retaining a solid and loyal work force.