Fairness in the workplace
Equal opportunities; the diversity agenda; work life balance. Phrases now so familiar to employers it is hard to avoid treating them, if not with contempt, then as clichés – with the devaluation of impact that a cliché brings. Mix in a bit of benefits-speak and boredom really sets in.
Fairness in the workplace means the only factor in determining reward should be contribution. Making sure reward is fairly applied across an organisation is an area of high current interest. A 2008 employment tribunal decision* highlighted just one potential difficulty by finding that: “An employer’s decision to introduce a flexible benefits scheme….did not constitute direct discrimination under the Age Regulations. This was so notwithstanding the fact that the scheme included a private medical insurance plan with age-related premiums making the plan more expensive for older employees.”
Voluntary benefits and equality of access
Voluntary benefits being employee-paid, with access to the benefit made available by the employer, leaves a conundrum with three components:
- Content: the range must be attractive – not all employees will use each benefit but can every employee find something?
- Communications: information on what’s available needs to reach all employees.
- Evidence: being able to demonstrate equality of access and understanding how to improve it.
Employers need to identify the different types of groups they want to ensure voluntary benefits are reaching. Voluntary benefits need to cut across gender, age, ethnicity, parental responsibility, sexual orientation, religion or belief and other groups identified in law. They also need to address variations in location, wage levels, field- and office- based workers, ‘head office vs. the rest’, those that are online at work and those that aren’t and any other organisation-specific factors which, if ignored, would result in a lack of fairness.
Minority interest voluntary benefits
Some voluntary benefits will only be relevant for a certain sector of any population.
While childcare vouchers (CCV) may only seem useful to a small number of employees, are you making sure that fathers are pro-actively included in a CCV recruitment drive? Is the assumption of employers and providers that this is a benefit for women who have had maternity leave, as opposed to parents who have children?
CCV may disproportionately be taken up by higher rate tax payers using nurseries, and lower wage employees will miss out on savings for holiday schemes or after school clubs. Employers must ensure that those who most need assistance in paying for good childcare are not left out.
Cycle to work (CtW) is another voluntary benefit with minority appeal but employers need to reach as many of the audience as possible. CtW supports CSR, sustainable transport and healthy living and, cynically, these are good boxes for companies to tick so including CtW in voluntary benefits is win-win.
Health products are a minefield, as the earlier quote highlights, and many employer-paid schemes are under review. If employer-paid PMI is not provided or is restricted, then including full PMI and cashplans in voluntary benefits passes on the advantage of group-rate premiums and makes the portfolio more inclusive.
Everyone needs to shop: employee discounts
Employee discounts is the voluntary benefit with the potential to appeal to most employees; everyone needs to shop but breadth of offers is key. Phone-based discounts have, in many ways, been outdone by online offers in the last few years – online adding hundreds of retailers not available offline. Include savings enabled by newer technologies – such as discount shopping for groceries with reloadable cards or 10% off at major retailers with vouchers by SMS text – and voluntary benefits come into their own.
Employers do worry about employees who don’t have internet access at work. The UK has the most active online population in Europe** and shopping is one of the most popular activities. People in work are more likely than those not in work to have online access at home, so employers should be reassured that the vast majority of their workforce will have internet access.
The value of access to online savings is emphasised by the depth of offers. Many retailers support online offers which they simply won’t allow as a phone offer, a discount code or card to use in the shop. Employee discounts schemes with a credible online portfolio routinely have significant amounts of Cashback which aren’t available any other way. Mobile phones and insurance are good examples of this.
It is less easy to find general research correlating engagement with voluntary benefits to ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or religion or belief. A good start to getting the content right is not to make assumptions about what employees want – one size doesn’t fit all, so choice and flexibility will engage more people. At an employer level, however, a scheme which is configured to collect this type of data at registration can then provide valuable (anonymised) MI as to the reach of the benefit into different sectors of the workforce.
Challenging stereotypes around employee groups
It can feel like the effort expended to communicate with employees is in inverse proportion to the perceived result. The most effective form of communication in many companies is the grapevine and benefits communications can certainly harvest the power of word-of-mouth. One colleague saying to another “I got a cheque for my dental appointment from the cashplan” is far more powerful than a leaflet saying the same thing.
Employers need a return for their investment. When considering benefits and diversity look at how best to capture people that might not know about, or initially be interested in, voluntary benefits. Engagement with benefits could significantly add to the reward package and thereby deliver substantial return on investment.
A breakdown of the split between men and women taking childcare vouchers across the UK is not readily available, but such evidence as is available suggests that the vast majority are women. Why would that be? It might be a subliminal extrapolation of childcare being ‘a mother’s responsibility’ or employers might not do enough to ensure fathers participate. With more men than women being higher-rate taxpayers, it is likely that some families are missing out on the higher tax savings a father’s entitlement would bring. Are you doing enough to make sure employees understand that two parents can have childcare vouchers for the same child(ren), doubling the saving?
For parents who use childcare on an irregular basis, in the holidays for example, joining a scheme can seem daunting. Talking to parents one-to-one, either at a ‘surgery’ or by phone, enables exploration of whether CCV is right for them. A few minutes out of an employee’s working day and the payback is significant – even if an employee finds the scheme is not right for now.
Make sure you communicate changes to your employees
In a PC–using workforce with a vibrant intranet, it’s entirely possible to get fantastic engagement with voluntary benefits with the right content, frequently refreshed banners, regular competitions and an opt-in email. Anything else could be superfluous. If employees are geographically dispersed, with or without computer facilities, it will take multiple methods of communications and sustained effort to achieve the same results.
Offline communications gets online engagement
It’s important not to confuse whether online is the best way to communicate benefits to employees with whether those employees will use voluntary benefits online; the two are quite distinct. If an employee does not access the internet at work, it does not mean they won’t use online voluntary benefits. It does, however, mean that a web banner won’t be the best way to get the message out to them. We’ve seen that employers should be confident that their workforce will benefit from discounts made available online but, if you don’t have an intranet, how do you set about reaching them?
It requires a framework for reaching the different audiences in the workforce and tailored output. Working with your benefits provider, you’ll need to consider geography, shift-workers, employees who don’t have English as a first language and other groups distinct to your organisation. A video podcast to explain benefits in other languages is straightforward and employers in relevant sectors will see engagement shoot up as a direct result. Employers should ensure that access to, and information about, benefits is widely accessible. For example, is your benefits website W3C compliant? Can employees with visual impairments phone instead?
Having carefully considered content and communications and made all this effort to serve the whole employee population, it would be nice to know that it is working, to demonstrate that engagement with benefits is broadly in line with the workforce profile. For voluntary benefits, this can be done by your provider reporting on key statistics.
Reverse mapping completes the picture
Mapping engagement against other characteristics such as ethnicity could be done by asking for the information at registration but it edges towards putting employees off - which is clearly not what we want. As an alternative, using a unique identifier (eg: a payroll number) to validate registration can provide a list of the identifiers in use for the employer to reverse-map against existing diversity data.
Content, communication and evidence
So there we have it. Content, communications, evidence. In any workforce, getting all three right in a voluntary benefits scheme can seem a challenge. For the more dispersed workforce it can seem almost impossible. In the equal opportunities arena, however, benefits needn’t cause a headache. The right provider will have the tools and be resourceful in adapting voluntary benefits to suit the workforce. Your employees already work hard; don’t make them work harder for their benefits.