A Matter of Dignity

With many working-age Americans struggling to find positions that pay them fairly and appropriately for their knowledge, skills and abilities, bear in mind that a strong benefits package can bring respect to the employment process as well.

By Carol Harnett

The advantage of writing a column for more than five years is that, eventually, you can explore topics that require you to pause and consider your point of view.

Don't misunderstand me. It is important to stay on top of benefit-design changes and insurance products such as a few I've written about during the last 12 months: private exchanges, voluntary benefits, disability, critical illness and vision insurance. And I will continue to cover the practical, real-world benefits challenges facing HR executives on a daily basis. But, as a columnist, every once in a while, a theme for your editorial calendar presents itself to you.

It won't surprise regular readers that my overarching premise for 2015 arrived in the form of a story I watched unfold last year.

A good friend decided to commit to a long-term, long-distance relationship by giving up her job and moving to her boyfriend's location. She coupled this move with a pledge to change her career, which required extensive travel and long workdays. Armed with work experience rich in highly desirable transferable skills, everyone assumed she would be snapped up in a matter of weeks. I'll spare you the details but, as HR leaders, you probably know this was not her fate.

Six months ago, she agreed to give one of her desired employers a chance by working in a "temp-to-perm" position. Even though the compensation was well below her experience, she thought it was a fair way to test out her new career path and for her prospective employer to understand what she brought to the table.

After a short time, they asked her to take over a project from a departing executive. She quickly was given rave reviews, and talks continued about how to bring her on full-time. However, the conversation didn't become serious until she approached the magic 900 hours mark. HR informed her manager she needed a permanent job offer or she'd have to leave.

Everyone scrambled to put together a package and my friend released a sigh of relief. She enjoyed the work and, despite her impressive resume, found the economic recovery still wasn't offering many job opportunities-especially for someone who wanted to switch careers.

Then came the offer and the ensuing negotiation. The compensation package was at the bottom of the range of the position and several levels below the executive she was replacing. The manager softened the blow by indicating she could use this job to get the position she deserved.

She should have walked away, but accepted for one reason: Her boyfriend is a serial entrepreneur and hadn't set up benefits for his latest venture; they wanted to avoid the public exchange since the choices are limited in the state where they live. So she said, "Yes," to the wonderful benefits package the company was also offering.

Her explanation is what caught my attention: "The hiring process was humiliating, but I received dignity through the employee-benefits offer."

Dignity in employee benefits: I can think of no better theme to center my column around. The concept of a dignified benefits package is interesting to explore because an increasing number of employers are trying to reduce expenses by cutting back on their offerings. Unless, of course, they operate in the technology space, where HR executives are becoming increasingly creative about how to attract and retain workers-including the much-talked-about benefit of paying the expense for female employees to freeze their eggs.

Also interesting is the fact that hope for a different approach to compensation and benefits can sometimes come from unexpected places, such as the restaurant industry. Twitter came alive on Jan. 2 with an unexpected post from Bobby Fry, one of the owners of Bar Marco in Pittsburgh: "In 2015, Bar Marco will not be accepting gratuity starting in April. All on salary + healthcare and shares. Now hiring, info@barmarcopgh.com."

In an industry in which, according to Mother Jones magazine, "more than 40 percent of restaurant workers live below twice the poverty line," that's quite a position for Fry and co-owners Kevin Cox and Justin Steel to take.

Fry insists it's a good business move. The co-owners and their employees will look for ways to increase efficiency in the notoriously inefficient and wasteful restaurant business, including participating in bi-monthly meetings to review Bar Marco's financials. Since all employees will be paid a salary regardless of the shift they work, Fry anticipates no difficulties in scheduling staff and will no longer have to worry about splitting tips fairly.

All 20 of Bar Marco's full-time employees agreed to a compensation and benefits package that includes a $35,000 base salary, full health benefits, 40 to 44 hours maximum per week with two days, one night and Sundays off (when the restaurant is normally closed), 10 vacation days, and-after three months on the job-500 shares of company stock that are initially worth one dollar each.

If a customer feels inclined to leave a tip, the restaurant will donate the money to a charity it established: Food Revolution Pittsburgh Cooking Club. The club teaches Obama Academy high-school students every Tuesday after school how to cook. Last year, the club hosted the largest Food Revolution Day event in the world, and is now raising money for a food truck so the students "have an opportunity to make money, instead of spend money."

Fry sums up the work his restaurant does with the club and in its restaurant with this statement: "Dining is a cultural experience, not just an act of consumption."

And now, working at Bar Marco will be a dignified employee-benefits experience as well.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.


Jan 14, 2015
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