Employee perks: Who should get them?

These two find their own ways to enjoy the home office. Grace and Dodger love sunbeams from either side of the door and I can get my work done easily while they are nearby. But it’s not that simple at most places of business.

This post isn’t about whether you should allow dogs in the office. But it’s an excellent example of the types of tough decisions a manager has to make when balancing employee perks and the demands of a job.

When I made my customary stop at the dry cleaners on Tuesday morning, there were no dogs there. The atmosphere was drastically different than the place I had become accustomed to.

The woman who cheerfully and efficiently greets me each visit always has her sidekick with her, a tiny Yorkshire Terrier, named Athena. Athena is quiet and well-mannered, friendly but not overbearing. On occasion, I’ve had to be careful not to trip over her as I enter or leave, but she’s never truly in the way and I like the warmth that it adds to a mundane errand I run.

I’ve watched many a customer dote over this little puffball of fur and observed Athena’s mom just beam with pride. There are always animated conversations that involve Athena; it’s a happy place, full of life. (In fact, I’m just now realizing that I know the dog’s name, but not the employee’s name!) Last week, Athena had company — a newly adopted, gorgeous 9-week-old Australian shepherd, and even I, a dog-lover, wondered how anyone could focus on their job and watch a puppy. Yet I was so taken with P.J.’s beauty and how incredibly well-behaved he was, it didn’t strike me as an issue.

This week, expecting to see the playful pup, I opened the door and was met with stark quiet, a most obvious emptiness that was foreign to my experiences there. The employee wore a smile, but something was different. I immediately asked about the dogs, and with just the tiniest hint of a somber mood and astonishingly absent of any bitterness, she explained that the owner felt the shedding of dog hair in a dry cleaning business wasn’t going to work anymore. It made me wonder what the complete story was, and I’m sure I’ll never know. It’s likely there were many factors, and also as likely that it may have been the best decision for the business. Still I couldn’t help but notice the difference in the environment.

Of course, there are never any absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decisions in these cases. Managers, leaders, and business owners must look out for all stakeholders, including customers, vendors, and all employees when evaluating what an employee can and can’t do or have in the workplace. The reason these decisions are so hard is because what is best for one might not be best for the other.

There are a ton of examples of these types of situations. Are flex hours acceptable? Can an employee hang personal pictures in their office space or should the look be consistent with the corporate image? Can a manager insist that an employee organize the unsightly piles of paperwork from a person’s desk? Can an employee work from home when they feel like it?

So how should a manager approach these tricky situations that involve a preference with an employee that may conflict with a traditional workplace environment?

  • Be genuinely open to what’s right for the business. When both parties can be focused on what’s best for the business objectives, it’s likely that everyone can live with the answer, even if it’s not what you wanted. And remember that the way it has always been done before is not the only measure of what’s right moving forward.
  • Establish a time period, where you’ll review and assess how it’s going. When trying something new, things will likely crop up that you didn’t anticipate. A pilot program sets the expectation that you’ll be testing it out, and gives everyone a mindset to objectively evaluate the successes and challenges of it. Talk about the fact that you may have to nix it all together, depending on the evaluation. Hope for the best, but think through what could go wrong so you can figure out how to prevent issues at all.
  • Be clear to everyone in the organization when and why any changes were made. If some employees are allowed to work in ways that appear unique or special, it will create resentment, unless you can state legitimate reasons that explain your rationale. Of course, you want to design policies that are fair. But fair can result in differences as well. For example, it may be completely appropriate to allow telecommuting for one job function but not another, based on the work itself and how that person(s) interacts with others. You can’t have a manufacturing worker conduct assembly line work from home, but you could have a data analyst work from a remote location without any issues.

We need to tap into ways that make the workplace more enjoyable to an employee, because it does impact productivity. But both the manager and the employee need to focus on what’s best for the organization when making the tough decisions. When the goals are clear and understood, the decisions become simple.

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  1. Kathy on May 4, 2012 at 6:59 am

    I can relate to this post on many levels.

    First, I also have an Australian Shepherd and LOVE her, she is the best pup ever.

    Second, I also used to let my staff bring their dogs to work and I brought mine as well.

    BUT…it all went bad when, without asking, one employee slowly brought all THREE of her dogs… one in a crate and there was a gate on her office door… and although she got all of her work done, her office became one BIG dog crate rather than a real office where staff could sit and chat with her. I have to say, I felt taken advantage of!

    Your pointers are right on…..be clear about what you expect, try it out. I would add….be prepared for disappointment if it doesn’t work out…I wasn’t fully prepared for how upset this person was when we had to nix it after staff complained (rightly so).

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Robin on May 4, 2012 at 8:04 am

      Wow, Kathy, it did seem this post was written with your story! How amazing — and I appreciate the additional advice given your direct experience with this type of situation. I think this employee at the dry cleaners was also very disappointed, but hid it professionally for me as a customer. (I just loved that little Australian Shepherd pup, he was gorgeous and also calm for being so young.) Thanks again for commenting!

  2. Laurie Bartolo on May 4, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    Great post, Robin! As much as I love dogs, even I see the pitfalls of allowing employees to bring them to work. When I was working as an HR Director, I was constantly having to make difficult decisions like this one. And what makes it difficult is that someone is always going to be unhappy about it. You make the dog owner happy, but the person with allergies is livid.

    Thank you for pointing out how tough it is to be in a position to make unpopular decisions. I was just trying to explain this to someone who was complaining to me about their HR Director at work…it’s a tough job with tough decisions, and they are often in situations where they can’t win either way.

    Like you, I enjoy visiting shops that have shop dogs, but I also respect this business owner’s decision and appreciate how hard it was to make.

    • Robin on May 5, 2012 at 8:39 am

      Laurie, you are right, it’s difficult to make these tough decisions. Many issues I see in organizations are the result of a leader letting a situation get out of control, avoiding the time when they have to make a decision one way or the other. They want to make everyone happy and it’s not always possible. It’s a good lesson to learn and to remember when faced with these dilemmas. Thanks so much for your thoughts!

  3. LeeAnn on May 8, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Hey Robin! I also can relate to this post as Gracie used to come with me to the office all of the time, with no problem – until a co-worker started bringing his black lab into the office as well. She was a sweet dog, but was never leashed (and was overly “friendly” on elevators). Then, my colleague started to expect that his assistants would walk the dog for him and they complained (understandably). Thus ensued the no more dogs rule. My objection was always that the trouble-maker should be addressed, not broad rules affecting those that weren’t causing the problems. I am still mad – can you tell? : )

    • Robin on May 9, 2012 at 8:59 am

      Hi LeeAnn! You pose such an excellent example of a situation that leaves managers in a really rough spot and they often don’t know how to address it. I agree that the real issue should be dealt with rather than making a broad sweep that isn’t fair to all. The easiest answer is to eliminate the lowest common denominator (in this case all dogs). But the best answer, I feel, comes from looking at what is really the issue. Is it really the dog? Or is the dog’s behavior (and/or the person’s behavior around the dog) that is creating the problem? One option is to have a policy that states “Well-mannered dogs and their people are fully welcome in our workplace.” I know this requires that there must be a way to measure and determine what ‘well-mannered’ means, but it can be done. Not easy, but possible. Thanks for sharing this story — it is definitely a great example of the tough choices that happen all the time.

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