12 February 2001
Some years ago, when I was working at a firm that shall remain nameless, we were each sent a pack of benefits brochures. In the folder (a dull grey one) was a letter from our human resources department telling us that because the firm cared about our health it had negotiated special discounts with, among others, a hospital cash-plan provider and a private medical insurance provider. You don't need to be a genius to work out that this went down like the proverbial lead balloon. We were enraged: "If they cared so much, they would have offered it for free," was the general view.
And that is the great disadvantage of voluntary benefits. As a firm, if you try to make out that you are offering great benefits, you will not be thanked for all your efforts and your negotiating prowess. Tell it like it is, and emphasise the discounts, and you may just fare a little better.
Personally I don't have a problem with being offered discounts on products. But like most people, I don't like to feel as though I am being conned. Or as though I am being palmed off with poor-man benefits.
The second problem with benefits offered to staff on a voluntary basis is that the products on offer are usually so boring. A range of financial products is a common one. We all need those little assurances, but they are hardly going to fire the imagination of your staff. Travel insurance may fare best here. But the sad news is that the discounted rates in travel insurance are not always lower than high street offerings, so no employees are going to leap with excitement at that one.
A trendy voluntary benefit at the moment (well it's been around for a while, but seems to be raising its head again) is workplace massages. Employers negotiate with a local masseur to come in once or several times a week at a special rate. They set up their towels and candles and oils (or whatever they use) in a large meeting room (preferably without large view windows into nearby offices). Staff wanting to use their services benefit from paying a discounted rate. And because they don't have to leave the building there is no chance of them getting all stressed up again in the traffic on their way back to the office.
When I heard how popular these alternative healthcare benefits were becoming I was concerned that this type of benefit may appear rather girlie in the eyes of testosterone-filled City-types, but having done a quick straw poll among friends and associates, I am assured that being gently kneaded in a darkened room is actually quite "cool".
Another benefit fast moving up the newcomers list is pet insurance. For the lawyer who has everything I am sure you can still surprise with this one. Just need a pet to be able to insure though...
Of course, you have to be wary of the providers trying to convince you that their product should make it onto your list of voluntary benefits. There are plenty of salesmen out there who would love to get their hands on a list of names and addresses of your high-flyers and then bombard them with literature and sales pitches.
But maybe I am being a bit harsh and looking only at the seedy underbelly of voluntary benefits. They can be fun and can show your staff that you know what they want. In fact, when Employee Benefits magazine conducted research into this area last year, it was discovered that 80 per cent of UK companies offer voluntary benefits of some sort or another.
So tread warily so as not to be labelled tightfisted, but do not be afraid to add those extra perks that cost you, the employer, nothing.
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