Who Stole My Perks?

By Bob Goldman

May 7, 2010 5 min read

Brush the cobwebs from that Aeron chair, young 'un, and let an old man tell you about the good old days -- when the economy was booming and companies were hiring and interest-only subprime mortgages seemed like a really good idea. Yep, I'm talking way back in 2007.

You probably won't believe this, but back then we had something called "perks," and I'm not talking about having the boss offer to drive you to the unemployment office in his Jaguar.

These were real benefits, and you got them in addition to your salary simply because management wanted to keep you happy and employed.

Sure, it sounds crazy now, and I don't blame you for thinking this old man has lost the few marbles he has left, but the company actually would pay for you to go to school. And when you put money in your 401(k) account, the company would match you, dollar for dollar. And then there were the parties -- big, splashy affairs with little hot dogs on toothpicks and all the Bubble Up you could drink.

Of course, when the economy went south, all those perks went away. And according to an article in The Wall Street Journal by Joe Walker, they aren't coming back any time soon. "While some companies are slowly restoring some benefits, experts say workers shouldn't expect a return to pre-2007 levels," Walker writes. He backs up his conclusion with a quote from expert Tim Prichard, the head of a benefits administration consulting firm. "Those days are gone," Prichard says. "Benefits across the board are no longer sacred cows."

A survey of 522 human resources professionals confirms the disappearance. Most perks -- including stock options, paid family leave and business-class airfare -- are heading for extinction. Until the job market turns around, worker bees like thee and me will have to be grateful for whatever crumbs management decides to throw our way.

One benefit that definitely has gone bye-bye is tuition reimbursement. You can understand the reason. Why would your company ever want you to get better educated? As long as management can keep you dumb, barefoot and pregnant with fear, you won't ask for more money or leave to take a better-paying job utilizing new skills.

Another vanishing perk is the ability to telecommute. Back in the old days, companies were happy to offer their workers the opportunity to work from home one or two days a week. It cost the companies nothing. It freed up desk space. And workers were more productive when they could get into their jobs without getting out of their pajamas.

No longer! According to a June 2009 report from the International Data Corp., over the past five years, the number of new telecommuters has been outweighed by the number of workers returning to the traditional workplace.

The blame for this cruel and unusual behavior may not rest entirely on management. According to Justin Jaffe, an IDC analyst, "When times are tough, telecommuters will take refuge in the corporate office, maybe feeling vulnerable or exposed in not being where the action is."

"Maybe"?

What's definitely definite is that it makes sense to end an "out of sight, out of a job" situation. Also, with so many people losing their homes, actually doing your work at work may be your only choice. Sitting at your desk surrounded by a bunch of yammering moron co-workers is no party, but it is better than trying to telecommute from a refrigerator box under a freeway overpass.

Are there any signs of hope? "Some firms are trying to soften the blow of salary freezes or benefit cuts by adding voluntary benefits," says Chris Hill of PerkSpot, a provider of employee-paid benefits. It's a great concept! Basically, you can have all the perks you want if you are willing to pay for them yourself.

Some of the do-it-yourself perks include discounts from merchants, such as Dell and Target. In other words, you can save money on the products you no longer can afford to buy. I say, forget Target. If I were an HR professional, I would offer discounts on Rolls-Royce cars and luxury condos in Tahiti. If I'm not going to be able to afford to buy something, I rather would not buy something really great.

If the disappearance of perks in your company depresses you, cheer up. You may not be getting bonuses and business treats, but rest assured, there is a name for people still lapping up the perks. They're called management.

Bob Goldman's weekly column, "Work Daze," appears at creators.com.

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