Benefits vs. Budgets: Providing Employees with Real Assistance During Tough Economic Times

By Darla Mullner; June 18, 2009

It’s no secret that every business today, regardless of sector, is faced with tough financial decisions. To that end, how do companies retain employees when budgets are impacting salaries and benefits? On one hand, management might take the position that with uncertainty in the marketplace, employees, despite reduced compensation packages, will stay in a job no matter what. That’s the short side of the argument.

The larger picture is that the economy is sure to rebound and employees have long memories. One approach is to provide meaningful benefits coupled with real assistance for all employees in an effort to aid retention and provide for an enhanced quality of life.

When faced with a competitive marketplace, the demand for highly skilled workers in a particular industry such as health care is fierce. The most cost-effective and efficient strategy is to hire the best employees during the recruitment phase and retain them for as long as possible by offering benefits that will enhance their quality of life. These quality of life benefits encompass several areas and include financial assistance, health and well-being and work-life resources.

Financial Assistance
In addition to wages, perhaps your organization may allow employees to “assist” co-workers that are facing a difficult financial situation. If your organization is a nonprofit and has a foundation or charitable affiliation, consider whether or not a special employee-fund can be established. Annual or any time contributions can be made and “drives” such as a cookie, flower or the like can generate thousands of dollars. Another way that employees can assist a co-worker in need is through the donation of Paid Time Off (PTO) hours. This is especially useful when an employee is experiencing a serious medical condition and has exhausted their own PTO hours or if they need income for time off.

Large organizations should take advantage of the purchasing power of a big group through discounted services and coupons offered by national retailers and service industries.  For example, employees might receive a 15 percent discount when using an on-campus or nearby daycare provider. Employees might be eligible to receive 20 percent off tax preparation services by a nationally known tax preparation service. Other reduced costs can be negotiated for employee entertainment such as amusement park fees and movie theatres.

Health and Well-Being
Most employers are well aware of continually rising health care costs. Disease prevention and fitness opportunities not only benefit the employee, but healthy team members use less health care services and costs can be better managed. Consider partnering with a local fitness center and offer free or discounted memberships, not only a great benefit, but also a great way to contribute to the bottom line.
Employees are people with lives outside the workplace. To ensure productivity and peak performance, offering a free employee assistance program (EAP) when someone needs guidance, counseling, referrals to local services or reliable professional care is often money well spent by the organization. Services include emotional health counseling and referrals, financial consultation including budgeting, credit assistance and college or retirement planning. The EAP also provides legal services including consumer and family law situations, traffic citations and estate planning.

Work-Life Assistance
Going beyond a paycheck can help make a difference in an employee’s life. What can your organization provide to enhance the lives of workers? For instance, consider offering all employees interest-free loans for the purchase of a personal computer. The incentive is that many employees in a large manufacturing firm or service organization may not have access to a personal computer on daily basis. As more communications and employee activities become electronic it becomes even more critical to offer ways to “wire” staff members to the organization. Partnerships with banks or credit unions are also desirable for employees who can take advantage of the option of checking and savings accounts as well as automatic payroll deduction for home and auto loans.

Helping employees hone skills that might be outside their normal job duties is also a great idea. Consider partnering with a local community or business college to offer staff free office software classes such as word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software.

The lifeblood of any business is its workforce. Today’s leaders must recognize that without talented, highly skilled and dedicated workers, many organizations would merely be buildings with equipment and furniture. Therefore, the best investment we can make for the future is the investment of a compensation package that provides employees with useful and meaningful benefits that enhance their quality of life.

Darla Mullner is human resources director at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora, IL, a 183-bed hospital providing health and wellness services to the greater Fox Valley community.  Rush-Copley was named one of Chicago’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For in 2008. Mullner can be reached at


Do You Know What Your Employees are REALLY Thinking?

One of the biggest issues facing the owner of a company – particularly as it grows larger – is keeping a pulse on the thoughts and feelings of the company staff.  As every smart business owner knows, your front-line people are often the most critical to your organization, but they also tend to be the ones a company CEO has the least contact with.

Below please find the story of one CEO who took a bold step to learn the thoughts and opinions of his front-line staff so he could insure that his decisions were being properly implemented – and he could insure that the decisions he was making that would affect those staff members were the proper decisions based upon all necessary facts.

While most business owners would not be able to initiate this type of plan, reading about it may cause you to develop other ideas that can be implemented within your firm to obtain similar results.


The undercover boss

By Stefan Stern – Published: June 8 2009

Employee attitude surveys, brown bag lunches, focus groups, informal chats: managers try quite hard to find out what their staff are thinking. But the results are mixed at best. What are your staff thinking? Admit it – you don’t really know.

Is there any way of finding out? Electronic surveillance would be a bad idea. Cloaks of invisibility work for Harry Potter, but are not available to the rest of us. One chief executive has done the next best thing. He went undercover in his own business for two weeks, disguised as an office worker, completing shifts on 10 different sites. He has heard for himself what his people really think. It has been a revelatory experience.

Stephen Martin is the 43-year-old CEO of the Clugston Group, a medium-sized civil engineering and logistics company based in the north of England. But for two weeks earlier this year, as far as his colleagues were concerned he was “Martin Walker”, an ordinary co-worker trying to earn a living like everybody else.

Ordinary, that is, except for the film crew that was following him around. The cover story was that this documentary team wanted to record how a clerical worker would cope with the demands of a physical labouring job. In truth they were making a programme, called Undercover Boss, which will air on British television (Channel 4) in two weeks’ time and then in a US version (CBS) this year.

How did Mr Martin avoid being found out? He is still a relatively new CEO, having started in December 2006. He grew a beard and turned up to work in protective clothing rather than a suit. His down-to-earth, approachable style does not mark him out immediately as “boss class”.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear unfiltered what my employees were really thinking,” Mr Martin told me when he came in to the Financial Times office – clean-shaven and in a suit and tie – last week. “They said things to me that they would never have told their managers.”

What lessons has he learnt? “Our key messages were just not getting through to people,” Mr Martin says. “People working a shift on a large site do not have time to read newsletters or log on to websites. You have to communicate with people on their terms, and it is different for every location. One size does not fit all.”

For example, Mr Martin found that an apparently sensible idea – encouraging his workers to take a tea-break where they were working rather than coming back to a canteen – was taken to mean that the break had been cut.

What is more, having worked these physically demanding shifts, which involved pouring concrete, laying kerbs and clearing drains, the boss now has a better informed view of the job. His conclusion: “We were asking the impossible of some of them.”

This TV-inspired experiment has highlighted a classic management problem. Leaders may know exactly what they want to see happening. They send out messages down the management line. Employees ought to understand. But between the top table and the shop-floor something goes wrong. Leadership teams can be scarily ignorant of how badly their wishes have been distorted, and how much unhappiness there is among those on the receiving end.

And right now there is a bigger, more urgent point. In a recession it is even harder to have an effective, open dialogue with an anxious workforce. Mr Martin shared what he had learnt with his team of managers after filming was over. It provoked a (frequently repeated) response: “They’ve never told us that!” But “Martin Walker” had seemed like someone it was safe to talk to, a regular guy, working night-shifts and staying at a £27-a-night ($43) bed and breakfast hotel called the Cocked Hat. “Even we wouldn’t stay there,” his co-workers had told him.

Mr Martin feels he needs to “over-communicate” to reassure staff who have seen big redundancies in recent months. “If you don’t pass on enough information, even if it is bad news, they will fill the gap with something else, probably worse than the truth.”

That view is supported by Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University in California, and author of the cover story in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review: “How to be a good boss in a bad economy”.

Prof Sutton says there are four things in particular that managers need to provide if they want to avoid this false anxiety syndrome: predictability (over-communicate); understanding (keep it “Sesame Street simple”, advises Procter & Gamble’s AG Lafley); control (break down big challenges into manageable ones); and compassion (show that you care).

Having had a chance to eavesdrop on his employees’ hitherto private conversations, Clugston’s Mr Martin has been forced to rethink much of what he thought he knew about management.

Convincing employees that the company has their best interests at heart is hard work. Key messages to staff should never go undercover, even if one boss had to don a disguise to find this out.

Top 10 HR Mistakes Made by Businesses – Large & Small

  1. Failure to develop an effective corporate communication strategy; internal and external.
    • Establish specific communication policies
      • internal/external email
      • internet/intranet
      • social media
      • IM
      • media/public communication
      • corporate document sharing
    • Publicize internal communication; open access promotes honesty and trust between management and staff
      • staff meetings
      • town halls
      • newsletters
    • Handle confidential information appropriately
  2. Failure to link individual goals to company goals
    • Short-term and long-term objectives; personal and company
    • Developing action plans
      • corporate > division > department > individual
    • HR planning
      • staff selection & planning
      • training & development
  3. Not utilizing HR metrics to track activity and performance
    • Measure how activity is impacting the bottom line, not just the cost of the activity
    • Needs to objectively demonstrate benefits to the business
  4. Lack of employee motivation and retention strategies
    • What motivates employees?
      • recognition; feeling valued by the organization
      • sense of achievement
      • feeling they are an integral part of the organization
      • opportunity for increased responsibility and advancement
      • compensation package
    • Develop credible reward programs
    • Insure that compensation packages are competitive to the market
  5. Lack of strategic recruitment plan
    • Hire people that fit; effort, expectations, attitude, talent, skills, training, experience
    • HR needs to manage the recruitment process, not department heads or executives
  6. Lack of training
    • Empower front-line management with authority; train them to use it effectively for the organization’s benefit
    • Don’t allow lack of awareness to be an excuse for inappropriate actions
    • Insure managers have training regarding legal issues affecting the manager/employee relationship
    • Ensure there is a clear understanding of corporate values
  7. Not establishing employee performance guidelines
    • Establish a reward system based on performance
    • Insure timely attention to employee performance issues to prevent staff morale issues
  8. Failure to keep up-to-date on legal requirements related to HR
    • Establish a network of experts for guidance
    • Participate in continuing education programs
  9. Lack of documentation
    • Insure proper tracking, measuring, analysis, reporting and follow-up
    • Meet all legal requirements for payroll documentation
  10. Failure to maximize the effectiveness of the HR team
    • HR should be an integral part of the executive team
    • Be pro-active rather than re-active to avoid negative perception amongst staff
    • Allow the HR department to be the catalyst for change management initiatives

Let us help you avoid these mistakes; contact us via our website or email us at for assistance with your HR strategies and structure.

What Your Employees Really Mean When They Say… (the hidden message your employees are trying to communicate to you)

Strategic Growth Concepts is pleased to present articles from time-to-time written by Human Resource related experts.  This article is from LaToya M. Palmer, an HR professional with  over 10-years of extensive experience in all aspects of Human Resources. She is President of the Michigan-based consulting firm, Palmer Solutions, LLC., which specializes in innovative HR solutions while also providing creative benefit management and payroll administration services.


I’ve had many managers come to me and tell me that they are having problems with their employees and they haven’t the faintest idea why.  I love this…okay maybe I really don’t, but humor me.  Any good HR person will use this gem (that’s what I like to call coachable HR moments) to give the greatest advice any human resources professional can give; always listen to what your employees don’t say.  I know you are scratching your head, trust me, the HR Gods are smiling down on you.

Employees can definitely be, let’s say, cryptic in their communications with company management. For example, I had a manager come to me and say that he was having problems with a normally good employee who had come to him and informed him that she was really concerned about a co-worker because she had been missing a lot of days lately. After asking a few more pointed questions, it came out that this “concerned” employee had been picking up the slack.  So do you see the hidden message?  What the employee was really telling the boss was, “My co-worker is not pulling her weight and I’m getting left holding the bag.” Needless to say, the manager hadn’t realized he was adding more work to the “good” employee, and that he wasn’t addressing what appeared to be an attendance problem within his department. Had he been listening more intently to what she wasn’t saying in his earlier conversations with the “good employee”, he would have picked up on the real situation during those earlier conversations.

Here are a couple more “translations” for those of you who haven’t yet mastered the language of Employee Speak.

  1. You’re giving a very simple explanation and instruction to your employees about a decision that was made by you or the Executive Team, and your employee says, “I don’t understand.”  Translation: “I totally disagree with what you’re saying. I am going to continue to say I don’t understand so that when I do the exact opposite of what you’re instructing us to do, I can use my lack of clarity as the reason.”  Action:  You should take this person aside and ensure thru a private conversation that they really “get it” by allowing them to walk through the parts they “don’t understand”, and encouraging them to give voice to their disagreement so that any potential “lack of clarity” is resolved and no longer an issue.
  2. You get a “petition” from your employees stating they want to change something within the company. Translation: Alarm bells should be ringing in your ears!  Your employees are telling you that they don’t feel comfortable coming to management individually to voice their opinions. They only feel comfortable doing so in numbers. This is a ripe climate in an hourly environment for unionization and should not be taken lightlyAction:  There is a communication gap within your organization that needs to be bridged; you should initiate communication between appropriate management and employee representatives as soon as possible to address the reasons that this climate has developed within the organization and work to diffuse the situation to allow for easier communication between the parties in future.

Employees give you “hints” at their “hidden meanings” more often than you realize. It’s imperative for company management, and HR professionals in particular, to listen closely to determine the “real” message that employees are trying to get across in order to prevent problem situations from occurring.

Employee Retention and Why it’s Critical for Small Businesses

Strategic Growth Concepts is pleased to present articles from time-to-time written by Human Resource related experts.  Our first article is from LaToya M. Palmer, an HR professional with  over 10-years of extensive experience in all aspects of Human Resources. She is President of the Michigan-based consulting firm, Palmer Solutions, LLC., which specializes in innovative HR solutions while also providing creative benefit management and payroll administration services.


Many small to mid-size companies are ‘battening down the hatches’ during these economically tumultuous times. Major cost cutting efforts, re-organizations and layoffs are foremost on their lists of things to do. Unfortunately, employee retention in smaller organizations often times takes a back seat to financial concerns, mainly because business owners, already cash strapped, associate retention efforts with cash.  They are so busy watching the company’s coffers that they have taken their eyes off the most valuable asset, human capital.

Employees are getting lost in the shuffle at many companies when it comes to retention. Employers are counting on the fact that due to the turbulent economy, employees are “lucky to have a job.”  This may be true, however ‘when times start a’ changing’ these companies are going to experience a mass exodus of their top talent going right out the front door. Those forgotten stalwarts that were the bedrocks during the down times will be the trailblazing their way to companies that believe in retaining their top talent.

There are several cash-conscious ways to ensure that you are keeping an eye on the pulse of your organization:

  1. Communication: There is no such thing as too much information. You should be communicating to your employees in a constant regular stream. In our technologically advanced society, you can be cutting edge and use things like Twitter, blogs or your internal company website to keep employees informed about the business. There is also still credence in company newsletters and employee meetings.  Utilize different touch points to let your employees know that you want them to have a stake in what’s going on in the company.
  2. Employee Surveys: Companies should not be waiting for exit interviews to find out if there is a problem in their organization that needs to be addressed. By conducting semi-annual pulse surveys, and having strategic plans to make use of the information, companies will actively show employees that they value their opinions.
  3. Reward Employees: Many of you are sighing after reading the “reward your employees” header. Don’t sigh just yet. There are many ways you can reward employees without necessarily spending boatloads of money. So many, in fact, that people have written many books attributed to celebrating employees without spending much money. A few titles that stand out are: “1001 Ways to Reward Employees” by Bob Nelson, Ph.D; “301 Ways to have fun at work” by Dave Hemsath; “Managing to Have Fun: How Fun at Work Can Motivate Your Employees, Inspire Your Coworkers, and Boost Your Bottom Line” by Matt Weinstein.

You want your employees to be at your company because they are treated as stakeholders. Keep in mind, as business owners, for the long-term it helps our profitability to show our employees that they are valued through our actions and with our words, and translates to bottom line growth with low turnover rates and high marks for employee satisfaction.