Perks help keep workers happy

Morale: Companies offer extras to hold down employee turnover.

July 11, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

A California software company gives all its workers $5,000 bonuses that they can spend only on dream vacations. An Indiana business gives employees chances to win money at company meetings. And at Whole Foods Market groceries across the nation, energetic workers can earn hundreds of dollars in bonuses every month.

Employee perks aren't as common or lavish as they were several years ago, when new Internet companies sought to lure talent with juicy stock options and workplaces that bordered on gymnasiums, but many companies still find that unusual extras help motivate and retain employees in an era marked by worker anxiety and sporadic job growth.

Perks - short for perquisites - are as various as pet insurance, tuition reimbursement and monthly manicures.

At a time when job satisfaction is especially low, employers say the perks help keep workers in their cubicles. The number of workers who plan to stay in their jobs dipped to 59 percent this year from 62 percent in 2003, according to an annual work trends survey by a Minneapolis-based consulting firm, Gantz Wiley Research.

A study commissioned by Florida recruiting agency Spherion found that workers are less likely than they were five years ago to view longevity with a single employer as a key to career success.

To hang on to their workers, some companies provide on-site child care; others send employees home with prepared dinners.

Businesses that hand out such extras don't necessarily have to pay competitive wages to hold on to employees, said Joyce Gioia, president of the Herman Group, a North Carolina think tank that focuses on work trends.

Discount lunches

Motek Inc., a software company in Beverly Hills, Calif., brings in lunch daily because the computer programmers and consultants at the firm never wanted to take a break to eat. Figuring that no one is productive when hungry, the company's chief executive began a program in which workers can have $15 deducted from their paycheck each week for lunch that is ordered from a different area restaurant every day.

All of the company's 20 employees take part in that program, said office manager Caroline Neal. Workers never have to worry about making lunch plans, and at $3 a day it's far cheaper than if they ordered lunch individually each day.

Other perks that keep workers at the privately held Motek: Five weeks of paid vacation each year and a $5,000 annual bonus that the company requires to be spent on three consecutive weeks of vacation - including air, hotel, car and train tickets for the employees and anyone who shares their itinerary.

The company's chief executive started the program to encourage workers to go away and recharge so they would return to work more focused and with fresh ideas.

"Your dream vacation, and it's possible every year," said Neal, who used her vacation bonus money to pay for a honeymoon in Italy.

For those who stay with the company for 10 years, Motek leases a car, a BMW, a Lexus or a Mercedes - another incentive to make those who come to work at Motek want to stay.

"The same programmers who wrote the original code still work on the program 13 years later because this is such an awesome place to work," Neal said of the company, which has made Deloitte & Touche's list of the fastest-growing companies in the Los Angeles area for the past four years. "Our retention is unbelievable."

Companies expect their employees to work hard for them, and they reward them with extra money or perks. It's part of a psychological contract between employee and employer that says, "We're all in this together," said Reginald Bruce, an associate professor of management in the University of Louisville's College of Business and Public Administration.


But labor experts have mixed views on the value of unusual perks. Some say it's more important for employees' ideas to be taken seriously and to feel empowered to make decisions at work; that, they say, will ultimately have a greater effect on productivity and commitment than a side benefit.

"A lot of times people have been told to check their brains at the door when they go to work and just do what they're told to do," Bruce said. "We have a myth that if you pay people more, they'll be more productive, more committed, more involved - and that's not the case.

"If you pay people more, they'll have more money. It won't be necessarily that they're more committed, more engaged in the workplace, more engaged with the job."

Indeed, several companies have found that cash or extrinsic rewards, such as vacations, typically have short-term gains, said Aneil K. Mishra, an associate professor of management at Wake Forest University's Babcock Graduate School of Management. Generous perks can even become "golden handcuffs," in some cases, keeping a worker from leaving naturally when the job has become a drag.

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