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September 26, 2022

How Smart Leaders Make Tough Decisions About Employee Benefits No Matter the Business Cycle

How Smart Leaders Make Tough Decisions About Employee Benefits No Matter the Business Cycle

As recession risks mount, business owners are looking for places to cut costs. Employee benefits can be a tempting target. But doing well by your employees can have an outsized impact on your bottom line, especially in this tight labor market.

In a recent Inc. Town Hall streaming event, a panel explored how prioritizing employee happiness can grow your business. Panelists included Sarah Hardy, co-founder and chief operating officer of the infant formula company, Bobbie; Paul McCarthy, chief people officer of hospitality services software provider SevenRooms; and Kara Hogenson, senior vice president overseeing group benefits at Principal Financial Group. Principal Financial Group sponsored the panel, which was moderated by Inc. executive editor Diana Ransom.

The group had this advice for business owners looking to implement effective programs, wherever you are in the business cycle.

1. Focus on the return, not the price tag.

While generous benefits can seem like an onerous expense, it pays to keep a long-term perspective, says Hardy. “Where business leaders go wrong is they stare at the cost of benefits and programs, and they have a hard time justifying the cost,” she says. “We take a step back, and we look at what are we getting in return across the whole business.”

When her company overhauled its parental leave policy last year, the return on investment was clear. “We immediately saw an uptick and the caliber of talent that was coming into our recruiting pipeline,” she says.

2. Don’t be afraid to make changes. 

Companies can outgrow certain perks. As your business expands, McCarthy says, it is important to keep revisiting your benefits package and make sure it’s still relevant for your employees.

“Watch the demographics at your company as you scale to see what needs to change,” says McCarthy. “Stay close to what people are talking to about and what matters to them.”

In the past three years, SevenRooms has grown to 240 employees from about 70. To get a better feel for what the expanded team valued, the company started offering a flexible stipend at the beginning of this year. The program allowed employees to spend the money in a variety of ways, such as on childcare fees or a gym membership. McCarthy took note of how people deployed the money.

“It’s been a wealth of insight,” he says. Data from these sorts of pilot programs can help you figure out which benefits will have the most impact on a company-wide scale, he says.

Changing employee benefits can feel like a risk. Don’t be afraid to throw out any new policies that are not working, Hardy says. “I don’t know sometimes if these things are going to stick,” she says. “We are constantly at the forefront asking ourselves: This thing that we rolled out even six months ago, does it still make sense? Did it scale?”

3. Don’t forget about managers.

Benefits are not effective if your employees do not know how to access them. Hardy says it’s important for founders to invest in the people, who will be fielding most of the questions. Make sure they are prepared to provide answers. At Bobbie, she’s found most employees reach out to their go-to contact for everything else: their manager.

“All too often, the managers are forgotten,” says Hardy. “At the end of the day, it’s the manager who’s creating that experience. Most times it’s not an HR administrator somewhere. It’s not a PDF with your policy.”

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