12 March 2001
For the modern law firm, as for many types of organisations, the need to encourage diversity has become something of a mantra for success. Whether it refers to client lists or areas of practice expertise, diversity is hailed by many as the new specialisation. It is this as much as anything that fuels the continual merry-go-round of mergers and acquisitions.
Nowhere is this quest for diversity felt more keenly than in the HR office. Although last year's dotcom brain-drain may have subsided, law firms are still fighting a fierce war for talent, not only against each other, but against other professional services firms as well. Good staff are hard to find - and even harder to keep. In such circumstances it stands to reason that the wider the recruitment net is cast, the better the chances of catching the best fish. But in order to make a firm's offer attractive to as wide a potential pool of recruits as possible, it has to be flexible. It is no longer enough to simply offer a standard package for all staff and hope that enough people are attracted by the thrill of working for Europe's leading law firm, or whatever boast the recruitment ads make.
The need for reward and HR polices to appeal to a diverse range of lifestyles is one of the key drivers behind the explosion of so-called flexible benefits policies, where employees are given a fixed amount to spend on benefits and can choose from a menu of different options. A positive spin-off from these schemes is that, often for the first time, staff begin to appreciate the value of the benefits they receive. Alongside flexible benefits schemes, there has been an equal growth in voluntary, or employee-paid, benefits. Here the employer merely acts as a facilitator, accessing a range of good deals on behalf of employees, and sometimes deducting payments from payroll.
One area of reward that has been revolutionised by this quest for diversity and greater employee choice is that of health benefits. Of course, it has helped that the boom in flexible and voluntary benefits schemes has combined with a growth in demand generally for so-called alternative therapies. The days where the partners received full private medical insurance, while the rest were told to make do with an aspirin and the NHS, are long gone. Private health providers have spotted an opportunity with a greater awareness of health issues and a rising profile of sickness absence, and they are not about to let employers off the sales hook. Equally, though, a rising awareness of issues such as stress and occupational health has created a strong demand for preventative measures.
Whereas five years ago osteopathy or aromatherapy was considered the preserve of quacks, and thus not covered by insurance schemes, these are frequently now used as marketing hooks to get employees to sign up, particularly where schemes are offered on a voluntary basis.
But it is more than a matter of insurance companies extending their products to meet new social trends. There is now a whole industry built around the provision of alternative health benefits to staff. Very often this means setting up in a meeting room for one day a week and inviting all interested staff to come and have a rub. The real rub, however, lies in the fact that while these schemes are positioned as employee benefits, all too often the real benefit accrues to the firm. After all, the real motivation for offering these schemes is more likely to be reducing sickness absence than an altruistic concern for employee health.
If staff have got bad backs, it is probably because they are expected to work in poorly designed workspaces for excessive hours and encouraged to stuff down a sandwich in between client briefings, rather than take a decent lunch break. Of course, many of these employees get a good salary, and enjoy the work, and if that is their preference, then who is an interfering HR manager to upset their yings and yangs by insisting they take an hour a week for yoga classes in the boardroom?