In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely provided two interesting observations related to employee benefits. First, he pointed out that benefits are more of a social contract than an economic one. The distinction between the two is very powerful. For example, if you have a department with 15 employees and someone walks in with a tray of 15 cookies and says that she baked cookies for the department today, under a social contract analysis, most employees would realize quickly that they should take one cookie each. However, if that was now turned into an economic arrangement in which the person stated that those cookies were baked for her child’s fundraiser, there would be no guilt or judgment associated with someone who proceeded to gobble up half the tray. Ariely reminds us that social contracts are much more powerful than economic ones.
Second, Ariely argues that asking employees to chip in for the payment of benefits or providing total compensation statements (something that we’ve recommended for years) diminishes the cohesiveness of the social contract.
These are provocative thoughts — and surveys about employee motivators mirror them to a certain degree. Although book after book after book talks about the “work experience,” in reality, most people go to work to be paid. The other motivational factors kick only after they feel they’re being paid a fair days’ wage. In today’s economy, employees rank benefits over compensation as their top concern. Benefits fulfill a security need more than does straight compensation. In a sense, the workforce is telling us that a dollar spent on benefits (which is a tax-free payment) is worth more than a dollar spent on straight compensation. Consider this if you’re considering a cut in benefits.