When it comes to child care, a company's most important consultant is right under its own roof: the employees.
Companies must be just as savvy in choosing what to offer as they are in selecting products to sell or services to provide. The companies that do it best will treat their employees as consumers of these services -- which they are, say human resource experts.
Good child-care benefits are a moving target that changes with each company, each group of employees, each geographic area.
Laura L. Paschall and her human relations staff at McCormick & Co. set out last year to pinpoint the child-care needs of their work force. They'd heard of several options: day-care centers, resource and referral networks, corporate subsidies and vouchers, to name a few. But, what did employees really want? What could they afford?
The company sent out 1,700 surveys to ask its Baltimore-area workers just that.
"We did not want to do anything until we got [the results of] that survey,"
Child-care providers and human resource professionals suggest starting, as McCormick did, with a comprehensive survey of the work force as the best way to pinpoint employee needs, desires, concerns and habits. Surveys can lead not only to programs that workers like, but can save the corporation time and money spent on misguided initiatives.
"Planning is critical," said Janet Singerman, deputy director of the Maryland Committee for Children. If you plan right, you'll give employees what they need, not to mention programs they'll frequently use, she says.
A useful survey includes questions concerning the ages of employees' children, the type of care parents are currently using, the type of care they prefer, the hours they need child care, family income and the rates they are willing to pay for care. Some companies use focus groups or an employee-management task force to further oversee and analyze employee responses to the survey.
In the Baltimore area, a variety of private consultants can guide a company from the survey stage all the way through to setting up and running their programs. State and local child-advocacy agencies, as well as the Maryland Committee for Children, will also lend a hand.
Once the results are in, managers may find their initial hunches on employee needs were not at all on the mark.
"Usually what the comprehensive survey reveals is that parents are looking for flexibility and understanding," says Ms. Singerman. "They want to be responsible parents and responsible employees."
And there is no one-solution-fits-all approach, so companies should pay close attention to the feedback employees give, she says.
Like McCormick, other regional employers such as Marriott Corp., Hechinger Co. and AAI Corp. started with employee surveys before creating their child-care benefits plans. Their responses range from creating easier-to-live-with work hours to day-care centers right at the work site.
Last April, when McCormick polled its employees, 40 percent of the surveys were returned, according to Ms. Paschall. Of the spice maker's employees who responded, less than 5 percent wanted a child-care center, Ms. Paschall says. McCormick employees were most interested in information about the resources available near the company's Hunt Valley headquarters. They wanted to know how to go about finding and evaluating good child care, including specific questions to ask, she said.
So, McCormick decided to set up an information clearinghouse for its employees. The company brings in speakers, distributes literature and introduces workers to the Maryland Committee for Children's LOCATE network, a registry of qualified child-care providers.
Beginning this month, the spice maker will include day-care information in its medical newsletter, which is distributed quarterly to all employees. And, through its decentralized management system, each division is individually investigating flextime to accommodate the full schedules of working parents.
McCormick has also set up a 10-member employee task force -- including both management and hourly workers -- to act as a benefits advisory council for the company. The group, carefully balanced to include men, women and minority groups, meets once a month and often hears from guest speakers on family-benefits topics.
"We are really in the process now of identifying employee needs and how to best serve employees," Ms. Paschall says. "Employees know we are looking at what more we can do."
After polling its work force, Landover-based Hechinger, too, decided against setting up its own day-care center. Hechinger opted, instead, for a telephone referral system.