November 7, 2012
7 Common Perks That Do More Harm Than Good

The idea of receiving perks once seemed really cool. I can’t deny it.

Fortunately I wised up.

I started my first “real job” (meaning finally out of college and trying to build a career) as an entry-level manufacturing employee. Every day I walked across a huge parking lot past parking spots near the entrance reserved for managers.

I wanted one of those spots. Not because I minded walking but because having a reserved spot would mean I was a big dog.

Years later I landed a senior management position at another plant and was assigned a reserved parking spot by the main entrance. I parked in my cool new spot on my first day and thought, “Wait. Why do I need a reserved spot? What makes me more special than anyone elsef?”

The answer, of course, was nothing. I wasn’t special. So I started parking on the side of the plant where other manufacturing employees parked.

And that’s the problem with most perks: Perks may be intended as rewards, but all they really do is create artificial distinctions based on arbitrary and sometimes self-serving criteria.

That’s why dropping silly perks is a great way to break down a few barriers between you and the people you most need to connect with: your employees.

Here are some perks you should eliminate today:

1. Trips and outings with suppliers and vendors.

In many industries the “vendor fishing trip” is a time-honored tradition. Forget tradition and stop accepting. Why put yourself in a position where influence could be implied?

Besides, your employees don’t get to go, so why should you? A great vendor doesn’t provide tickets to a ballgame or a fancy meal; a great vendor provides excellent service and quality products at a great price.

Except: If the vendor agrees, put your employees’ names in a hat and draw lucky winners at random. That’s a pretty cool way to share a vendor’s largesse.

2. Reserved parking spaces.

You don’t need to park close to the front door. A little rain won’t hurt you.

Except: Reserved spaces do make sense when they’re reserved for employees who work late at night and go to their cars alone. (Although if your parking lot is potentially dangerous during off hours you should you do a lot more to make it safe than simply creating some reserved parking spots.)

3. Special lunch or break areas.

Think the executive lunch area is a bygone relic? Nope. In the last year I’ve seen six.

Use the space for another purpose and get out and mingle. And when you do, don’t sit at a table with your peers. Always sit with the rank and file; you spend enough time with the other managers as it is. In fact, your rule should be “No more than one manager or supervisor at a table.”

Except: Maintaining different lunch or break areas based on geography or employee convenience is fine; just make sure your area is no nicer than any other area.

4. Special doors.

Okay, so you have a master key that opens every door. And it’s really convenient to enter the facility through the side door. But if no one else can use that door, you shouldn’t use it either.

Except: If entering through a specific door has a tangible business purpose, like carrying in equipment or supplies, that’s fine.

5. Office doors.

Don’t take the door off its hinges, but do leave it open except during confidential discussions with employees. Your office is just another tool that supports your job function; it should not shield you from employees.

Except: I know sometimes you need peace and quiet to complete a project; just make sure that’s the exception, not the norm.

6. Meeting Refreshments.

Do you customarily provide bagels and beverages for meetings? Fine.

But wait – who pays?

If the company pays, stop. CEOs and managers have a lot more meetings than employees, and you would be surprised by how many employees think, “Okay… once again it’s bagel day… must be nice…”

Besides, if your meetings run so long you need nourishment to keep everyone going, you have an entirely different problem.

Except: If you’re meeting with non-management employees, providing refreshments is very cool.

7. Popping out during the workday.

I know you work long hours and shoulder tons of responsibility. It’s only fair if you run out to a doctor’s appointment during work hours, right?

If your employees can do likewise, without penalty, fine. Otherwise no. When you arrive late or leave early or flit in and out of the building during work hours… and others don’t enjoy the same discretion and freedom… all you do is prove that standards are applied very differently. Remember, perception matters.

Except: No exceptions. Nothing irritates an hourly employee more than watching a supervisor, manager, or CEO “run out for a couple of hours.” Trust me. I’ve been there, felt that.

  • Saif

    I hope that one day or basic schooling will tell us how to stick to the basic norms of ethics so that the executives would know how to behave properly instead of cramming the big theories n success stories.

  • Morry

    You admitted one of the reasons FOR a perk in the earlier paragraphs: “I wanted one of those spots.” Although you seemed to have wised up when you actually achieved those perks, a part of perks is, IMHO, to provide incentive.

  • Tom

    Hi Jeff,

    I couldn’t disagree more. The perks are a fantastic way to reward employees. I believe in MBWA as much as the next guy, but my executive team does go out to luch together. We do sometimes eat with operations people or supply and share lunch with our workers in the plant. The higher one rises in the company; the more perks one earns. We offer company cars to executives and sales staff. I must also disagree about the “fishing trips”. We work hard to offer our clients the best service, but an outing of golf, fishing, dinner, gives us uninterrupted time with our clients. We find this to be just one more way to build custmoer loyalty and build stronger relationships. Thank you for an interesting article.

  • Spuds

    The last one is poppycock. I’m salaried, I’m a manager, I work 60 hours or more per week. If I want to pop out a couple of hours in the middle of the day, I’m going to do it. The company takes my life from me, it’s only right that I get a little back when it counts.

    If I didn’t TAKE that time, I’d never get it. Nobody would ever say to me “Why don’t you take a few hours and go to a doctor’s appointment.”

    I had to bargain just to take a day to drive 6 hours to see my dying father. If they start an “Always at your desk no exceptions” policy, I think I’d quit.

    • Spring

      It is not poppycock. As he said, it’s only ok if your employees can pop out to go to the doctor or drive 6 hours to see their dying father without penalty as well.

  • JD

    Loved the intent of this post; all for one and one for all is the best manifestation of a flat org. structure. Don’t entirely agree on on a flat perk structure.

    Perks are there for a reason: to incent, reward and create awareness of a job well done or a position gained through extraordinary effort and/or results.

    Where it goes wrong is when perks are awarded without reason (and the rest of the people are aware it was a gimme, creating resentment) and/or the people who’ve gained the perks begin to view themselves as ‘above’ the hoi polloi, acting accordingly (flaunting, preening, ignoring peers) etc.

    A perk needs to be treated as gold and awarded as such with the full expectation (and communication to the perk-ee) that they accept and utilize with human-ness and dignity. If they can’t, then perhaps they are simply not worthy of the perk no matter what they’ve done well?

    Last have to agree with the majority here — a salaried executive who works long hours both on and off the clock by necessity alone may need a few hours here or there by default. That isn’t a perk. That’s survival.

  • dionnelew

    I don’t think there’s a one size fits all to this. It depends on the kind of industry and what motivates both the managers and the employees. Some people are highly motivated by perks such as in sales and that leads to high performance, good for the whole company and others are not, no need.

    Business needs are important. If sales people, or executives, or workers are in and out every day needing to travel for meetings, well, then, it’s easier to allocate the carparks.

    At the end of the day you may all be sitting in the same lunchroom but everyone knows who earns what and if there’s a crisis, the reality is, responsibility and consequences differ. That is a reality. You can be a very grounded and anchored leader, but you still have a different role.

    What I did like very much though in this post was the ETHOS underpinning the comments. And the ethos was anti-ego. It points up the arbitrary “things” we create that distinguish one person from another.

    Some people – regardless of where they sit in the hierarchy – can have an innate sense of being better than others which is off-putting.

    I think this is at the heart of the article and I like it – even though I think point by point – we’re better to reflect on – what industry or workplace are we talking about here and what motivates the people there.

  • Max

    I think a number of people here are missing the point of the argument against “popping out for a few hours”. You work long hours and you need to get things done during the day occasionally. That’s fine. But your rank and file employees have the same needs. For the most part, they are working during bank hours and doctor’s hours just the same as you. If you find the need to leave the office occasionally, make sure your employees have the same flexibility. At this point, it’s not a perk of upper management, but a perk of working for the company. That builds loyalty instead of resentment. And if for some reason your business model necessitates that everybody be present during all normal work hours, why wouldn’t the same apply to upper management?

  • Josh

    You’re right on the money, and are speaking about great leadership. I see the disagreeing comments as rationalization from poor leadership.

  • bruno

    good article, you are right about ethics, we are all in the same boat to make it happen
    just one reflection, when I was a plant manager I didn’t have a reserved parking spot, but all shift employees left the first spot open for me, without ever talking about that
    It felt like a strong compliment