Dina Rulli

How to Build Employee Benefit Programs That Win Over Top Talent

This is a guest blog by Dina Rulli, the Director of People at Classy.org. Here, she shares her learnings on how to responsibly build employee benefit programs that attract top talent and keep them engaged, productive, and happy.


These days, you can’t open your computer without seeing an article about how some big name company is offering another ridiculous perk, like egg freezing, onsite daycare, unlimited vacation, or $70,000 minimum salaries for all employees.

I equate this to how the top 1 percent of Americans live. While we can always dream to be part of the 1 percent, being part of the 99 percent majority is most of our realities. To that same end, most organizations also fall into this 99 percent and struggle to keep up with the flashy perks that the 1 percent offer.

As a company that has grown from 15 employees to over 130 in a few short years, our team at Classy has been forced to flex its creative muscles in order to win over top talent, but on a tighter budget.

Let me set the stage: we’re a tech startup in San Diego, an up-and-coming tech community, but certainly not the Mecca located 400 miles to the north. And while we are lucky to have developed a culture that is rewarding and fun, we struggle with the same challenges that nearly every organization faces:

  • How do we attract and retain the best talent?
  • How do we make sure our employees are engaged, productive, and happy?
  • How do we maintain a culture where employees love to come to work everyday?
  • How do we do all these things while managing our bottom line in a responsible way?

As we wrestled with these challenges, we realized that the best way for us to accomplish these goals was to do two surprisingly simple, yet powerful things.

Ask Your Employees What They Want

Let your employees recommend what they want. In other words, let the employees “run the asylum.”

When we started brainstorming the programs we wanted to roll out in 2016, we turned to general market research first. Key data from Glassdoor indicated that the number one benefit employees wanted was better healthcare insurance. After reading over this survey, I trusted the results emphatically and started to recommend to our executives that we think along these lines as well. Luckily, a member on my team suggested that we survey the staff anyways just to validate our research. What we found really surprised us.

The internal survey asked questions about the following topics:

1. What perks and benefits do you want most?
2. How do you want to be compensated
3. How do you want to be recognized?

While there were some similarities in our results with the industry survey, there were also some distinct differences that countered our going-in assumptions. By and large the top three benefits that our employees want are:

1. 401K matching plan
2. Additional paid time off (PTO) with an accrual with tenure
3. Supplemental wellness programs (i.e., gym memberships and wellness cleanses)

My first thought: “Who would’ve guessed we have a bunch of savers?” My second thought: “I’m glad we listened to our employees first.”

Be Transparent About “The Now” vs. “The Later”

While we’d love to offer employees all of their most desired benefits, the reality is we must also balance these choices responsibly based on the stage our company is in today with where we are headed to in the future. We’ve found through communication and complete transparency with our employees about the decisions we’re making, and why, that we’re able to appropriately grow our benefit package with choices that most affect employee satisfaction. After all, we are all in this together.

To start, we implemented the two most budget-friendly programs: increased PTO with tenure and supplemental wellness programs. We see both of these benefits as critical to our employees’ health and well-being. Additionally, since we work exclusively with social impact organizations, and our employees are purpose-driven to give back, we joined in the Pledge 1% movement and are giving our employees additional PTO to volunteer for causes they are passionate about.

It bears noting that one of the unique X factors across our employee base is a “mission-driven” common thread, thereby giving volunteer time off a strong position in our benefits profile. While there is value to having perks like ping pong tables and catered lunches everyday, we’ve made the conscious decision at this stage in our growth to opt out of these more traditional startup perks, and instead weave time into our policies to foster our staff’s interest in social good. In the end, it’s a win-win. Overall, the per employee cost for each of these programs is fairly minimal, and we create long-term impact on employee satisfaction.

In regards to employee wellness programs, we’re looking into supplementing gym and studio memberships. Additionally, we’ll be rolling out supported cleanses and regular wellness tips that are grassroots and have minimal impact on the company’s checkbook, costing only about $1,000 annually. We’ve tapped into our own employee base, for example, to identify certified instructors, trainers, and nutritionists to support these efforts. Too good to be true? Nope. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and we’re proving it’s possible. More importantly, wellness programs pay for themselves by reducing stress and increasing mental clarity.

Next up, 401(k) match. We recently communicated to the entire staff at a bi-weekly all-hands meeting that we look forward to being in a position in the near future to match 401(k) contributions. We offered everyone a candid look inside this decision and, now armed with the knowledge that this is the most important perk to our employees, we’ve made it a priority to try to roll it out in the upcoming 12 to 24 months. Through transparency we build our employees’ trust and choose to live out this value daily.

Beyond choosing the right programs to implement, the information we received from the employee survey has helped us rethink how we do performance reviews, merit increases, and promotions. These changes are still evolving, but initial ideas include more formal and frequent feedback and assessment processes along with the development of a recognition program.

So what has been our number one lesson through this process? You can’t make decisions about your staff in a vacuum. Let them have a voice, and then show them that you listened by taking action on what they want. Too often, employers think that they know what employees want and make decisions affecting the greater population based off their opinions, or the opinions of a small group. Let your employees help you do your job and guide the rollout of programs and in return, communicate and share your decisions and logic.

The result is a happier, more engaged workforce, less turnover, and less cost to the company. Let 2016 be the year you resolve to rattle some cages and give power to the people.


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