The Benefits Battle: Perks That Aren't So Perky

Some benefits sound better than they actually end up being. Second in a series.

Discover insights, career tools and much more in Korn Ferry Advance

The email landed in employees' inboxes in bold: "We're pleased to offer this new benefit to you!" Read on, and it described a childcare program that, well, wasn't all that. It wasn't a service that subsidized the cost of a nanny, or provided free babysitting several times a year. Instead, the offer was a subscription to a semi-helpful website that merely search for care in the area.

At a time when wage stagnation continues to thwart professionals-despite a hot labor market-benefits have become a big battleground for hiring managers looking for ways to woo talent beyond a base salary. "The sweet spot is to be competitive in base salaries, benefits, and incentives," says Tom McMullen, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry and a leader of the firm's Rewards and Benefits Solutions practice. "But not all benefits are created equal."

Companies want to offer a variety of benefits, but it's not the Cadillac program in every case.

The result is trying to attract and-perhaps more importantly-retain talent by balancing rising costs and staying competitive with current trends. Here's how to decipher a valuable benefit from one that only looks good on paper.

Prioritize what you need (and want).

Even at the world's best companies to work for, benefits across each bucket don't receive five stars. That's because companies are trying to control costs, while also understanding what's important to their employees and job candidates-and staying competitive. "Often companies want to get across the idea that they offer something, but maybe it's not the Cadillac program in every case," McMullen says. Thus, you owe it to yourself to drill down and figure out what you really value. If you're older and have parents you're taking care of, elder care may be of importance, while someone who is a few years out of school may be focused on paid time off and tuition reimbursement assistance.

Beware of the fine print.

While companies aren't trying to be misleading, they oftentimes may just be trying to check a box to look competitive. That's why it's incumbent upon you to look under the hood and ask what's really included. Many companies, for example, offer 401(k) matches, but the percentages and maximum contributions can vary. Newer services, such as concierge programs that do your dry cleaning or take your car in for servicing, may only be available for certain hours or up to a specific dollar amount. "Take a consumer approach to evaluating benefits," says Michael Hunn, president of The Hunn Group, a healthcare advisory based in Southern California. "You want to ask yourself what do I get for this and how much do I get for that."

Investigate the benefits that seem too good to be true.

One of the more popular benefits that about 55% of companies now offer is personal financial planning services. Sounds great, right? Well, it really depends on the level of advisory. For some companies, this benefit may mean meeting with certified financial planners who can help you outline your financial life. But oftentimes, it just means offering debt management. "There's a big difference between getting a credit score online with a few debt tips versus helping you manage your 401(k), mortgage, and investment portfolio," Hunn says.

Next: More of the workforce are becoming contractors. How to protect yourself if you aren't on a W-2.

In part one: the new benefits wooing talent.

The ultimate career guide, from Korn Ferry CEO and New York Times best-selling author, Gary Burnison
Complimentary with every Premium subscription
It Starts With You...
How to take control, uncover your blind spots and make more money.
...But It’s Not About You
Surviving bosses and coworkers, managing, and networking success.
To Earn More, Learn More
Don't be a know-it-all, be a learn-it-all with practical advice and tools.
"Advance gives you a wealth of practical and actionable advice. You'll have what you need to take control of your career, starting today."