YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


For Some, Quirky Perks Are a Wash

Compensation: Your company's offer of laundry service may be helpful. Or will all the candy you can eat produce a better employee?


Some companies attempt to secure a bit of employee loyalty with perks that are not exactly run-of-the-mill, from health insurance for a pet to subsidized laundry service with deskside delivery.

The reasons that companies adopt oddball perks vary widely. It might be a way to cut turnover or to reduce employee theft. Companies might view it as a marketing strategy, an image tool or a morale booster. It may simply grow out of the personality of the owners.

Occasionally, corporate beneficence can mask an uncaring culture.

"What makes me suspicious and what makes employees wonder is the difference between what they know they need and the buffet of benefits that is spread out in front of them," said Nancy K. Austin, a management consultant and co-author, with management guru Tom Peters, of "A Passion for Excellence."

Some nontraditional benefits fall into the category of discounts on or samples of company products. If you work for the right company, that may be sweet news indeed: See's Candies sprinkles boxes of chocolate around its Los Angeles and San Francisco offices for employee engorgement, many sports teams and amusement parks hand out free tickets, and Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream keeps the cold stuff in plentiful supply for tasting at corporate headquarters in Oakland as well as 50 distribution offices around the country.

Others encourage good health habits: an unusually swank fitness center with swimming pool and tennis courts at Qualcomm in San Diego; company-sponsored athletic teams and theater groups at Odetics in Anaheim.

A few encourage good citizenship. Newhall Land & Farming has an informal policy of allowing employees to volunteer with community organizations on company time. Mattel grants employees 16 hours a year for school activities, which can mean watching children in the big spelling bee or volunteering in the library at a neighborhood school. Rhino Records rewards employees with vacation time for philanthropic pursuits.

Then there are some benefits that are just for fun.

West Los Angeles-based Raleigh Enterprises foots the entire bill for a big company party for about 1,500 employees and their families at a theme park once a year. At Disneyland, salaried employees take over during an annual Christmas party "so that the hourly folks can enjoy the park," a spokesman said.

But perhaps the most appreciated perks of all come in the form of cold, hard cash: money to pay for your own or your child's education, the ability to sell back unused vacation or sick days or the sharing of a percentage of corporate profits.

Some benefits grow out of beliefs deeply held by a company's management or a special corporate culture. But many times odd perks just happen, said Barbara Reskin, an Ohio State University sociology professor who has studied change in corporations, especially involving women and minorities.

"It starts out as a small demand. One employee asks," Reskin said. "Then it becomes institutionalized as a benefit."

Benefits that are now almost common, such as extending health insurance and other benefits to unmarried partners of employees, whether homosexual or heterosexual, were considered avant-garde 10 years ago, Reskin said.

However, "people-friendly" programs can be a slick way of avoiding offering employees something more real, said Austin, who runs a consulting firm bearing her own name in Capitola, just south of Santa Cruz.

"The numbers of companies that are doing even the most basic things for employees to provide flexibility are really very small," Austin said. Nontraditional benefits are not a reasonable substitute for such basics as flextime and child care nor are they an effective salve for the employees who remain after downsizing.

"Which is better, getting your dry cleaning done at work or having the freedom to set your own hours so you have time to go to the cleaner of your choice?" Austin said.

Quirky perks are rare--that's what makes them quirky. But to the companies that offer them, they are considered important incentives to be treasured even in tough times.

Southwest Airlines is frequently held up as a model of a company where strangeness has boosted the bottom line. Chief Executive Herbert D. Kelleher is a workaholic prankster and expects his employees to work hard and have fun. An extra day off each month and the ability to switch days off with colleagues are among the unusual benefits Southwest offers.

Wilton Connor Packaging of Charlotte, N.C., employs people to wash and fold co-workers' laundry and deliver it to their desks by the end of the day. The cost is $1 a load. A company-employed handyman will make repairs at employees' homes. Employees pay only the cost of materials.

Los Angeles Times Articles