Benefits Column

Is Beer In the Workplace an Employee Benefit?

Providing beer to employees is one of the more atypical employee benefits, but it does say something about the company's culture and the employees who will thrive there. Some HR leaders discuss their benefits philosophies.

Monday, June 4, 2012
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Struggling with a project during a late-February afternoon last year, I stopped to assess the situation and realized I was dispirited.

I had recently returned home after three weeks of business travel that was hampered by four nor'easters and wasn't able to get outside to work off my stress due to head-high snow banks.

Since I enjoy the sometime luxury of a home office, I decided sprints up and down the stairs that run from my basement to the second floor would help me let off some steam. On one of my passes through the dining room, I spied a decanter of wine remaining from the prior night's dinner.

On each pass, I increasingly rationalized how one small glass could jump start my spirits.

Eventually I succumbed, but not before placing a Facebook status update questioning the wisdom of sipping wine while plowing through work. When I received the go-ahead from my FB friends, I gleefully spent the next few hours finishing the project.

It turned out a taste of what I previously saw as forbidden during work hours was exactly what I needed.

I recalled this experience when talking with Mark Torres, senior vice president of people and culture at The Rubicon Project. Torres was one of three human resource leaders on a panel I moderated in Santa Monica, Calif., last month about building a culture of wellness.

Torres joined the company about a year ago after his employer transitioned from a PEO to an in-house human resources team. One of his first acts was to survey employees about benefits -- which resulted in a strong staff request to retain the 24/7 beer refrigerator on the premises under the category of "the one thing we shouldn't change."

When Torres repeated his story for our audience, a hush came over the room. Beer in the workplace? Is that an employee benefit -- nevermind a wellness strategy?

I've pondered this question for the last two weeks. For me, the answer lies in what I see as an expanding definition of benefits from its World War II origins.

Employee perks are rapidly becoming as important to workers as employee benefits. Start-up companies such as The Rubicon Project are leading the way by defining the company's culture with the perks they offer.

And, yes, the company's benefits include more than just beer. They offer a solid benefits package along with a $50 per month wellness reward, which allows employees to define wellness for themselves.

In fact, start-ups are coupling traditional and non-traditional benefits on a regular basis.

Also on the panel, Nate Randall, the benefits manager at Tesla Motors, captured the new world of benefits best by describing the "Tesla Lifestyle" as a reflection of the environment the company creates, which attracts the kind of people they want to employ.

Randall is "consciously creating a benefits structure that is different from what other companies are doing." And that's consistent with the electric-vehicle manufacturer's goal to produce increasingly affordable electric cars.

Tesla employees receive free high-deductible health-insurance plans, preventive care, preventive prescriptions and birth control. The wellness programs don't force specific behavior changes but, instead, "capture what employees are already doing and prop that up."

When the company found that many of the engineers cycled to work, Tesla made showers available to them.

And, in the near future, the Tesla Lifestyle will include an employee garden at work that will produce enough vegetables to feed employees at home.

But, the best Tesla perk of all may be the opportunity all employees have to drive a Tesla Roadster and, sometimes, even take one home for the weekend.

John Foster, head of talent and organization at Hulu, and the third member of my panel, said he made a basic assumption when creating the online-video service's benefits philosophy.

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"Our employees are a group of entrepreneurs working together at a place where builders build," Foster says.

As such, Hulu made an intentional shift away from being policy-driven and created a more holistic approach to benefits and wellness, which support employees' emotional, social and physical traits.

Foster explained that his short-term focus is helping employees deal with stress, time management, sleep and work/life balance. As a result, he believes in giving employees individual choices about how they address these challenges -- and the company supports them with resources designed to help maintain healthy habits.

One resource Hulu created is "Be Well" -- a $700 per year stipend that employees can spend any way they'd like to improve their performance at work.

Foster loosely tracks the outcomes of the Hulu approach to benefits.

He finds that hiring people with a strong intrinsic commitment to well-being results in growth of Hulu's revenue and services, along with an employee-turnover rate of 7 percent to 8 percent -- half of the tech industry's typical turnover.

So, what about beer in the workplace? I believe it's less an employee benefit and more a reflection of a company's DNA. In fact, avant-garde benefits may be the best way to understand what it's like to work for a company.

Google's sleeping pods, free food and showers at work create a great atmosphere but also mean employees can stay on the campus for continuous days to complete a project and reap a bonus. Don't want to do that? Maybe you shouldn't apply to be a Noogler -- a new Google employee.

As human resource executives, taking a new look at how you feature the specifics of your employee-benefits package may give you a way to attract and retain the type of employees who will succeed at your company.

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.

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