How Perks Can Divide Us

Perks are a poor substitute for a culture built on a stronger, more inclusive foundation.

by Melissa Santos & Rafe Colburn on June 9th, 2014

“Work hard, play hard” is such a common descriptor for corporate culture that there’s a Wikipedia article about it. It captures an idea that is essential to the modern technology industry — that while companies ask a lot of their employees, they reward them with perks that more than make up for it.

A company or team that aspires to build a diverse, engaged workforce needs to put more thought into culture than that. In an industry where culture is often allowed to be defined by perks, managers need to mindful of the fact that for many people, perks underscore the differences between members of the team rather than bringing them together. They also need to think about what a company’s perks indicate to potential employees about the culture.

A caterer prepares lettuce wraps on a table covered with ingredients and bowls.

CC-BY matchfitskills, filtered

How Perks Can Divide Us

Our employer, Etsy, has a number of wonderful and enviable perks. We have a healthy, interesting catered lunch twice a week. We have a kegerator in the office that sometimes has a keg of beer in it. We have a ping pong table that sees regular use, and a Nintendo console that people use to play Super Smash Brothers after work. We have a series of fun, out of the office events for the whole company, including a company talent show, a summer picnic, an annual ski day at a nearby resort, and an excellent holiday party. None of these perks are without both pros and cons.

Despite the fact that we try to be as inclusive as possible with lunch, offering vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free meals every time, there are still people at Etsy who never join in for perfectly good reasons, potentially dividing themselves from the rest of the company. There are also remote employees who don’t even get a chance to join us for lunch unless they’re visiting the home office.

Breaking bread with other people is one of the most powerful bonding experiences and choosing not to join in can be isolating for team members. Free lunches may create a bit of awkwardness, but free dinner is potentially even more divisive, because it is a workday extender. Dinner with coworkers may be great for the twenty-something with nowhere to go and an In-N-Out habit, but it’s also the thing that creates a bright line between the employees with families and obligations outside of work, and those who have nowhere particular to be in the evening.

A pitcher being filled with beer from a keg.

CC-BY Jenn Durfey, filtered

Beer in the office is fun for some, but it can be alienating to people who don’t drink, and possibly an outright hazard to recovering alcoholics or employees prone to substance abuse. There are people who don’t drink for religious reasons, health reasons, or simply because they prefer not to. Furthermore, alcohol is often a catalyst for bad behavior. And, finally, free alcohol in the office is right up there with free dinner as a way to induce employees to stick around outside of normal working hours.

Games are fairly benign, but they’re also a way for people to build relationships across teams and levels in a way that can be difficult for people who don’t join in those games to replicate. It’s hard to avoid the perception that the person who has a weekly tennis match with the CEO has special access not available to the non-tennis player. (Note that this is a hypothetical example, as far as we know Etsy’s CEO has never played tennis.)

These perks are generally most appealing to one particular demographic — young, unmarried guys. All too often, they are intended to make companies appealing to candidates who are members of that demographic, and they reinforce the monoculture that is often a huge problem in our industry. It’s incumbent on managers to think about the disparate impact of perks on the members of the team.

Heading Off Site

Cautioning managers about off-site events is a bit painful, because they can often be really fun. Many people look forward to the Etsy ski trip and talent show all year. Bonding activities can be really fun and encourage people on the team to get to know each other in a way that really does make teams more cohesive. A team dinner can make people feel appreciated in a way that few other rewards can match.

Because these perks are really special and are often rare events, the pressure to participate can be even greater than that around regular, day-to-day perks. Being the only person who doesn’t join the team for a meal out can feel really awkward, whether it’s because you don’t really want to hang out with other team members after work, you don’t like the restaurant they’re going to, or you’d love to join in but just can’t line up a babysitter.

Events that occur within working hours and are more broadly inclusive, or tailored to the interests of everyone who’s eligible to participate can be better. Here’s an example from a previous job of Melissa’s:

My second week as an analyst, we went to a cooking class for the morning. We cooked a big meal together and ate it for lunch. I didn’t really know anyone coming in, but having a variety of activities gave us a chance to partner to with different people throughout the morning. I got to see clearly that all of us, ALL OF US, were very precise people. We fixed the recipe. We corrected problems with measurements. We counted the number of layers of phyllo dough between layers of baklava. We delegated jobs and had to trust each other to get things done. We all trusted each other much more after being able to see how much each of us cared about precision and following directions.

Perks and Recruiting

Nothing says more about a company’s culture than the perks the company brags about in the recruiting process, and it seems like everyone is capable of reading between the lines when it comes to evaluating perks. Bragging about beer and video games in the office screams “brogrammer.” Bragging about catered dinner is a pretty clear indication that the company never wants you to go home. Unlimited vacation was once seen as a perk that promised complete trust and maximal flexibility, but has since come to be equated with a destructive race to outdo coworkers by never going on vacation at all.

A pingpong table with a plastic ball caught in mid-traverse.

CC-BY J R, filtered

The fundamental danger of basing your recruiting pitch around perks is that you may find that you actually attract candidates who are interested in the perks, rather than the company or team’s work. If your goal is to get a job that will provide you with alcohol in the office, you may not be the sort of person we want to work with. Employees who rate possible employers based on the perks offered are likely to be seduced away by the next hot job opportunity that offers them even more.

The greatest danger that perks present to recruiting, though, is that they create a new set of risks around unconscious (or even conscious) hiring biases. A team that expenses a barbeque lunch every Friday may react negatively to a candidate who’s vegan, simply out of a desire to defend the status quo of perks. Suddenly something that was supposed to make work more pleasant winds up being an implicit reason to exclude potential employees that has nothing to do with their job performance.

The worst-case scenario

Perhaps the perfect illustration of how a perk that is intended to reward employees and communicate prestige can backfire is Augusta National Golf Club’s relationship with IBM. Augusta National is the host of The Masters golf tournament, and IBM is a multi-million dollar sponsor of The Masters. Traditionally, Augusta has extended a membership invitation to the CEO of IBM. Augusta is also famous for its prohibition of female members, and before 1990, its prohibition on black members.

When IBM promoted Virginia Rometty to CEO in January, 2012, Augusta did not offer her a membership. In August 2012, they admitted two other female members, but Rometty still hasn’t been invited into the club. In the meantime, IBM continues to sponsor The Masters. IBM managed to hire its first female CEO, who is denied what is ostensibly one of the most prestigious perks of the jobs due solely to her gender.

Most perks aren’t so spectacularly exclusionary, but this hyperbolic and yet true example underscores the problem with many perks. While they may be effective in bringing a homogenous team together, they magnify the things that diverse teams don’t have in common.

Building on a firmer foundation

While perks can be fun, they are a poor substitute for a culture built on a stronger, more inclusive foundation. Books could be written about the emptiness of mission statements, but an organization or a team can build a strong culture around a mission.

Non-profits like Donors Choose, which facilitates crowd-funding for specific classroom projects, can build a positive corporate culture entirely around their mission. Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information presents a compelling vision that offers a much more tangible and meaningful opportunity for commitment than the opportunity to eat unlimited amounts of frozen yogurt in the company cafeteria at any time of day. At Etsy, we don’t talk about free lunches at all-hands meetings, but rather our mission to reimagine commerce. Other companies can engage employees with their mission as well.

Closely related to this is aligning a business with the needs of customers. When you are building things that customers find useful and actually desire, for the kinds of people you probably want to work with, the implicit rewards outweigh any perks.

While many companies talk about a work hard, play hard culture, we are striving to build a Just Culture. Building a culture around really understanding error, risk, and safety, and moving beyond blaming and punishing people for “human error” has created an environment where people feel empowered to do their best work with the knowledge that there’s no incentive to hide mistakes. This culture pays more dividends in terms of day to day quality of life, employee retention, and recruiting than any perks ever will. And most importantly, it is maximally inclusive. Every kind of person benefits from this kind of culture.

As managers, our goal should be to build the strongest and most effective teams possible. That starts with being able to draw from the broadest pool of candidates possible. When we exclude people because they don’t drink beer, can’t hang out after work, are remote employees or don’t like video games, we’re driving away people who could make our teams great for irrelevant reasons.

Perks should be the garnish, not the meal, when it comes to the employment experience. They cannot be such an essential part of the employment experience that rejecting them feels like rejecting the job as a whole, and the company must have more to offer in terms of rewards than a paycheck, a bundle of perks, and excessive working hours.

Building a cohesive team with members who trust one another’s work is an incredibly difficult job. Trying to create that cohesion around perks rather than a shared set of values about the work you’re doing is a shortcut that never pays off in the end.