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Rebecca Green | SBJ

Perks with a Purpose: Employers balance cost versus desire for benefits to draw, retain employees

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In September alone, 54 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data released Nov. 1, and for the third month in a row, the country’s quit rate held steady at 2.7%. That’s close to the record of 3%, hit in both November and December of 2021.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports more than 10 million job openings nationwide, but only 6 million unemployed workers. Labor force participation is currently at 62.3%. The all-time high, per BLS, is 67.1%, achieved 1997-2000. New BLS data says on average, openings are taking 18% longer for employers to fill.

There are myriad reasons for employee departures. Many, like early retirements to breakdowns in child care, are beyond small employers’ power to remedy.

Other employees are simply choosing to leave. Research firm Gartner Inc. reported this year that many candidates were exiting workplaces because they saw no path for advancement in their current job. Others desired better work-life balance, and still others wanted a job that included opportunities for professional development. Consulting company Deloitte reports organizations with a strong learning culture score 30%-50% higher in engagement and retention.

These factors – contentment factors – offer an opportunity for employers to use their creativity in benefits to attract and retain workers, and many local businesses are rising to the challenge.

Case study: Free chocolate
Shawn Askinosie, who founded bean-to-bar chocolate factory Askinosie Chocolate LLC in 2007, said in all that time, he’s never grown tired of eating chocolate.

One creative benefit he offers is a no-brainer: Workers can eat chocolate for days. His 22 full-time employees are encouraged to taste chocolate all through the manufacturing process.

“Part of work is to be tasting chocolate routinely,” Askinosie said. “It’s not like I’m Willy Wonka, having people jump in a vat of chocolate. They’re tasting small amounts at different stages in the process. The main reason is to ensure quality.”

But Askinosie said workers seem to enjoy the opportunity.

“Tasting chocolate is kind of cool,” he said.

The company offers traditional benefits, too. People can take up to 16 days of paid time off per year, with additional flexibility to attend medical appointments or their children’s school activities.

A reproductive health policy begun last year provides PTO and travel reimbursement to those workers seeking to terminate pregnancies, and both maternal and paternal leave are offered for birth and adoption. Bereavement pay is provided for the loss of an immediate or extended family member.

Askinosie said giving workers a voice is also a factor in their satisfaction.

“We have a very flat hierarchy, so people can make decisions and solve problems very quickly in a small business like ours that might take days in another company,” he said.

And opportunities for community development, whether in Springfield or in the company’s cacao-supplying nations of Tanzania or the Philippines, also appeal to workers.

“I think it is a benefit to work at a company where the mission of the company is not simply profit but also being part of the world community,” Askinosie said. “People who work at our company are proud of that.”

Case study: Spiritual health
At Elevate Branson, a faith-based charitable organization that addresses root causes of generational poverty, an unusual benefit offered is time with the “boss.”

No, not CEO and Executive Director Bryan Stallings. The other boss.

“In the nature of nonprofit work, we feel like we need to give a little bit of extra time for refreshing, and so we created one day a month – it’s a paid day – when you just spend time with God,” Stallings said.

They call it a day of solitude, and the 16 full-time employees are encouraged to take the opportunity to connect.

“It’s not a day to run errands; it’s a day to recharge and refill,” Stallings said. “I’ll take mine and go fish.”

Other benefits include two months of paid sabbatical time for workers who have been employed for five years to use during their tenure. There are also five extra sick days for communicable illness.

“Certain illnesses you just don’t want brought to work,” Stallings said.

But it’s the day of solitude that employees like best, Stallings said.

“True to the nonprofit world, we’re understaffed, overworked, underpaid,” he said. “When they can have that time of refreshment, it helps them stay energized, in mission, and hopefully not burn out.”

Case study: Think philanthropically
Beth Keeling, business manager at Paragon Architecture LLC, said her company prioritizes philanthropy.

“The thing that I think touches close to home for a lot of people is that we really support their philanthropic passion,” she said. “It’s something we talk about from the very first interview. We want people who are interested in their community.”

Paragon allows workers to use company time to support the causes they care about, with no set amount or limit, but it doesn’t end there; colleagues also join in to support each other’s charities.

“It’s a cool dual-purpose thing,” Keeling said. “When we see somebody is really passionate about something, we want to support them as well.”

She adds that workers are not required to take vacation time for their charitable work.

Paragon also has a targeted wellness program that aims to meet stated interests of workers. One recent educational program focused on mental health first aid, she said.

Paragon’s two-dozen full-timers earn a four-week sabbatical after seven years, then every four to five years after that. Brad Erwin, founder of the company, said clients are prepared well in advance, and the team pitches in for seamless service.

“We take over their email, take over their voicemail, and they have no connection to projects,” he said. “That gives employees time to disconnect and do something they wouldn’t be able to do in a one-week vacation.”

Recently, Erwin said an employee used his sabbatical to connect with an old hobby, mountain biking, after several years away.

Benefits that consider the total person are good for the company, he said.

“It makes us all-around better people,” Erwin said. “I hope that translates through the engineering and construction teams that we work with and our projects with our clients. It’s not something you can point to as a bottom line.”

Responsiveness for the win
Spencer Harris, president of digital marketing company Mostly Serious LLC, said the smart employer is responsive to employees’ lifestyles.

“More and more today, what we’re hearing is that newer working generations are more interested in flexible workspaces, high levels of autonomy and the ability to have a flexible schedule,” he said. “We’ve seen more data pointing to opportunities for professional development and career advancement as a desirable benefit among millennials and Gen Zers.”

Harris said organizations that prioritize employee needs related to work-life balance are more competitive in the long run.

“People want a sense of purpose at work,” he said. “As much as you can use your time and space to create opportunities for folks to feel like they’re part of something great, that’s also more likely to tie employees to workplaces.”

Sara Choate, managing director of human capital solutions at KPM CPAs & Advisors, suggests employers build a total reward package that is based on who they want to be as a company.

“They should ask who are we, and how can we best honor that, so it’s not just a mission statement that’s on the wall, but it’s in our everyday actions,” she said.

Choate said to get creative with meaningful benefits offerings, small businesses should prioritize talking to employees.

“Unless you’re really talking to your people, you may completely miss the mark,” she said. “You have to have those conversations.”

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