Why Trendy Employee Benefit Options May Have Unintended Negative Consequences

In their effort to engage and retain employees, especially those from Generations Y and Z, employers are looking for innovative ways to secure a reputation as an employer of choice. In the process, though, they may be inadvertently turning some employees off. What resonates and engages with one employee may be a big turnoff to others.

Take goat yoga for example. While it is being touted as a health benefit, and is certainly unique, for some employees the idea seems simply silly at best, even frightening. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, “In goat yoga, the point isn’t to sweat. It’s to have a baby goat climb on your shoulders during your plank.” Not all employees will be comfortable with that, of course, and therein lies the potential problems for employers embracing unusual benefit options.

As one employee who works at an organization that is offering goat yoga shared: “I’m uncomfortable to the point of considering looking for a job elsewhere.” While that may seem extreme, the sentiment is indicative of the types of problems these sorts of “far out” benefit offerings can trigger.

“When it comes to offering unique employee benefits, companies often go astray when they equate unique with outlandish ideas or trends that appeal to a select group,” says Ryan K. Lahti, Ph.D., founder and managing principal of OrgLeader. “If few employees actually use these items, they really aren’t benefits. As a result, employees get the impression that the companies really aren’t tuned in to the needs and wants of the workforce.” Worse, the pressure employees may feel to participate can serve to disengage rather than engage them.

Peer Pressure

On the surface it may not seem like such a big deal to offer unique benefits that appeal to niche segments of the employee population. After all, these offerings are voluntary and the organization certainly wouldn’t require employees to take part in activities they may not be interested in.

Unfortunately, employees do often feel pressured to participate—not, necessarily, by the company but by their peers.

One unintended consequence of offering unique benefits in an attempt to engage employees is the impact of peer pressure. Employees who are delighted by the prospect of goat yoga, for instance, may exert pressure on colleagues to take part in the activity. These colleagues may do so—grudgingly—but, ultimately, may have a negative rather than positive experience that leads to disengagement, rather than engagement.

Even less trendy benefit offerings than goat yoga can lead to unintended pressure. Nonathletic employees may balk at the notion of participating in fitness activities, for instance. Employees who don’t consider themselves to be handy may prefer to avoid taking part in Habitat for Humanity activities, however worthy these efforts may be.

Also, employees who may be experiencing financial difficulties may feel uncomfortable saying “no” to fundraising requests or contributions for birthday or other celebratory activities.

Employers, and their HR advisors, need to be alert to these types of pressures, however unintended.

Avoiding Pushback

To avoid the potential negative pushback that can occur when benefit offerings fail to appeal to all employees, it’s important for employers to take the time to “truly understand what their employees need and want,” says Misty Guinn, director of benefits and wellness at Benefitfocus, a cloud-based benefits platform.

“Perks like goat yoga may be flashy and fun, but they don’t provide employees with tangible support that can improve their work-life balance and overall wellbeing—in health, wealth and lifestyle—which, at the end of the day, are what benefits are for,” Guinn says. “The consequence of offering benefits that are bold on the surface but not actually meaningful to the employee is that the resources for the benefits that can positively impact their day-to-day are pushed aside.”

It’s important to understand what really matters to employees based on their unique life circumstances. For instance, Guinn says, “An employee with an elderly parent or newborn at home will find caregiver benefits a far more effective way to manage their stress than goat yoga or a free lunch, because it addresses the source of their stress.”

Employees vary in terms of their interests and personal preferences, and those differences need to be respected. Being alert to the potential for peer pressure and ensuring that offerings are truly voluntary is critical, especially if non-traditional benefits are being offered.

Lahti suggests some additional ways that employers can boost the engagement potential of their benefits:

  • Provide the opportunity to have a friend or family member accompany the employee;
  • Offer the benefit in a location that employees find relaxing or energizing; and
  • Include items that enhance the experience (e.g., favorite foods, massages) and will help employees remember it in a positive way (e.g., symbolic gifts, personalized photos).

“Offering unique lifestyle perks may catch the eye of new hires as a fun bonus, but they should only be offered alongside more impactful voluntary benefits that help employees manage their complex lives, freeing them up to focus more on their career and support their overall total well-being,” Guinn advises.

The bottom line: goat yoga isn’t for everyone, but your benefit options should be.