Benefits Column Show Us Their Values

Company values and the impact they have on the business seem to be constantly in the news these days, from Uber's bad-boy Travis Kalanick to Starbuck's compassionate Executive Chairman (and former CEO) Howard Schultz. HR leaders should consider revisiting their organization's value statement and making it a guiding principle for their employee-benefits design.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017
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I recently had the privilege of delivering the 25th anniversary keynote presentation at the Disability Management Employer Coalition's conference. I spent a significant amount of time considering my topic: the evolution of integrated benefits over a quarter century and possible trajectories for the future.

In case you're not familiar with the term integrated benefits, its essence is defined as a holistic approach to meeting employees' needs by identifying gaps to fill -- especially if an accident or major illness occurs.

As a speaker, I sometimes use alliterations to create a memory around a key point. As I played with the contrast between the focus of the DMEC's founders and that of professionals who work in integrated benefits today, I found myself returning to the phrases: "problems and possibilities" versus "tasks and tactics."

I wanted the audience to consider that DMEC founders  Marcia Carruthers, Sharon Kaleta and Joe Wozniak identified a key problem in their respective workplaces and envisioned unique possibilities (for the time period) to address it.

In their cases, the management of employee disability and absence was minimal at best, and limited largely to employees covered under workers' compensation insurance. The possibility they saw to correct this oversight was to actively manage all employee-disability-related injuries and illnesses, regardless of whether their origins were work-related.

Approximately 25 years ago, two key pieces of legislation supported their efforts: the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act.

In contrast, HR, benefits and disability management professionals now find themselves mired in addressing tasks (such as implementing the New York Paid Family Leave law in a short timeframe, for example) through the use of tactics. Possibilities and innovations are concepts for which they simply can't make time.

Total absence management is not the only area where tactics consume HR and benefits executives. In my work with employers regarding benefits as a whole, I often find this same laser focus on tasks -- with little time left over to consider root problems.

A few weeks before my DMEC presentation, I still felt unsettled about the focal point of my address. It wasn't until I wrote my last benefits column that I realized what was missing: the importance of company values and their application in the management of the business -- including benefits.

In that column, I described Olark Live Chat's Ben Congleton's ability to support an employee who took a few days off to address early-stage mental-health issues. He pointed to his company's values as the reason he treated employee mental and physical health issues in the same manner, and a driver for why he provided paid leave benefits for both.

Upon further reflection, I recognized I was becoming a bit of a Starbucks groupie, which is saying a lot for a caffeine-avoiding fan of local businesses over chain establishments. Starbucks is doing something that deserves the attention of corporations and their HR leaders alike. As Fast Company magazine highlighted in its September 2017 issue, the coffee supplier is redefining what a brand can be, including taking on community-based social issues. Their employee benefits offerings -- especially the company's health-insurance benefit -- are also attracting and retaining employees. As Howard Schultz, Starbucks' chairman and CEO, said at the annual shareholders' meeting: "We have never shown a harmful impact on our business due to our compassion."

But, I will take this idea of the importance of company values and how they impact company culture and employee benefits practices one step further. In this new era of radical transparency, businesses don't necessarily have to alter their less-than-compassionate natures. Travis Kalanick, former CEO of Uber, never hid his belief that "brilliant jerks" could sometimes create great businesses.

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Kalanick is not alone. I know someone who used to work directly with Steve Jobs. As a result, she and other colleagues of that time, refer to this period as responsible for their collective PTSJ -- post-traumatic-Steve-Jobs diagnosis. Yet, none of them would have traded their experience to work at another company, or for another boss.

Granted, Susan J. Fowler, a former Uber engineer, upended Uber when she wrote a blog post about her frustrating year as an employee. Maybe -- just maybe -- in these times when one employee's tweet or Facebook post can alter the public's perception of a company, it would be less shocking if an employer spelled out their values and shared them prominently. It would make the decision about where consumers would spend their money and place their business easier.

It was this aha moment about company values that pulled my DMEC presentation together. I abandoned the alliteration and instead offered that the organization's founders did three things well: they recognized a problem; understood their values; and identified solutions based upon both conditions.

Carruthers often says they decided early on that they would take employees back to work while still connected to IV poles if there was a reasonable way to accommodate them. You could say that creative employee accommodation was a key value for her and her employer.

In the hours and days that followed my DMEC presentation, the leading feedback I received from the most-experienced conference attendees was this: They realized the one thing they had been overlooking was the consideration of their (and their company's) values -- and it was the first thing they were going to revisit when they returned to work.

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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