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CAREERS: MADDER THAN EVER

Those Quirky Perks Might Add Up to Not Enough

So the company pays for concierge services--but maybe time-starved employees would rather flexible hours, cash.

November 02, 1998|MARLA MATZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the labor market tightens and businesses strive to remain competitive, a number of firms have touted such novel employee benefits as house-sitting and concierge services. What's not to like about that?

Plenty, says management consultant and business author Nancy K. Austin. "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's point is that such benefits can be hollow--and end up making employees mad--if firms lack substantive "people-friendly" programs and attitudes to back them up.

Such perks as flex time and cold hard cash are almost universally desired by workers. Employers, on the other hand, often prefer a regimented workday and dole out small favors rather than pro-employee policy changes.

If you believe the maxim that time is money, any time-saving benefits offered in your workplace could be seen as a direct benefit to the checkbook. "I used to talk about 'time-starved America'; now I think it's become a famine," said Richard Federico, a vice president of Segal Co., a New York-based human resources consulting firm.

Still, Federico admits the rise of these convenience benefits "has a lot to do with working longer hours. . . . Anything an employer can do to lower the amount of time you need to spend on personal errands is a win-win." In fact, he says, some time-saver benefits became popular not only as an employee recruitment and retention tool, but in response to employee demand. "There was a perception that family-oriented benefits excluded those without families," Federico says. He cites the high-tech and retail sectors--areas that tend to have a lot of younger and single workers, and high turnover--as particular hotbeds for unusual, time-sensitive perks.

Ironically, professor Edward Lawler of USC's Marshall School of Business thinks these nouveau benefits may also cause some friction. "You run the risk of pleasing some, but not pleasing others," Lawler said. "You can end up attracting only a very specific set of employees with such benefits," he added. "If that's what you want, fine. But many companies may want to cast their nets wider."

Lawler said that in a meeting with Silicon Valley CEOs he took part in recently, executives were split evenly on the value of quirky perks. "Some wanted to attract people solely on the basis of them loving the work, and wanting to make a career there," Lawler said. "Those kinds of companies are often willing to pay a little more money for dedicated employees, rather than offering fancy benefits."

Flexible, family-and-individual-tailored benefits, however, help land companies on such coveted "best" lists as Working Mother magazine's annual "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers." Child care and flexible work schedules are touted every year as attractions at Cigna Corp., Procter & Gamble Co. and others that make the lists. Such firms may offer some nontraditional programs. But their commitment to promoting a work-family balance is what wins them real points with their employees, according to these lists. "It will be interesting to see whether these kinds of benefits continue when unemployment goes back up a bit," Lawler said. "I think a lot of [the move toward novel perks] is being driven by temporary labor [shortages]."

So even if you think you'd love such services from your employer as discounts and referrals to mechanics and home repair specialists, you may see them yanked away once the labor pool expands again.

"You can just walk into some companies and sense that they have a real culture of friendliness. I think those companies are really best-suited to be competitive in the long run," Federico said.

Here are signals that may tip you off to the fact that your benefits aren't as great as they seem:

1. You're expected to be productive via your company-issued pager, cell phone and laptop computer even when you're in bed with a fever. Suddenly, those high-tech "perks" look like a ball and chain.

2. Written company policy says women receive six weeks of paid maternity leave. In reality, pregnant workers come to the office until their water breaks, and return the moment they're out of the hospital. Company culture makes them afraid that if they take advantage of their maternity benefit, they'll be labeled "not a team player," or be seen to be on the dreaded "mommy track."

3. The human resources manager says perkily, "You get a 30% discount at our stores, and $8 off admission to the theme parks. But if you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Monday."

4. Dry-cleaning, house-sitting and concierge services are the primary reason you would choose working for this company over another? It may be time to get a life.

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