Good benefits don’t equal good culture

At some point, company culture became synonymous with employee benefits, as if all a good culture entails is including the same few perks. And while it’s true that world-class benefits do initially attract talented people to a company, they don’t necessarily keep them there or keep them happy — and that’s a massive problem for HR and folks that deal with culture.

How did all this come about, and why do we phone-in “culture” with perks and benefits? I think it comes down to time and energy. Good perks get people excited and motivated to be part of an organization — but that excitement and motivation are usually short-lived. It’s a high that wears off. After the honeymoon phase is gone — what’s left?

Many leaders equate better benefits with a better culture because it’s easier than putting in the work to build a sustained and healthy culture. But without both, employees don’t feel valued or invested. Benefits and “fun” perks can start to feel hypocritical to unhappy employees at companies where real cultural initiatives are not a priority. “Oh cool, this beer cart rolling around at 4:45 on Friday afternoon totally makes up for the fact that I haven’t been able to have dinner with my family in weeks.”

Oh great! Another cool thing I have to skip. Again.

Another great example of the difference between good benefits and good culture can be seen in the new trend toward offering employees unlimited vacation. This is a great selling point during recruiting, but often those companies have cultures in place that discourage employees from taking time off. In a recent study, HR platform company Namely found that “employees with unlimited vacation plans take an average of only 13 days off per year, whereas traditional plan employees average 15 days annually.

So while the benefit is there, there clearly isn’t a culture of trust and support surrounding it that enables employees to actually use the benefit.

Unfortunately, many companies are putting all their proverbial eggs in the benefits basket and doing nothing to build the kind of culture that employees need to do work that matters to them.

So what happens to those people that have started to see the writing on the wall, so to speak? When the benefits no longer bring joy. When the perks don’t pique interest.