Beyond bucks: perks show what matters most

Companies start to offer more unique benefits

With competition fierce for talented employees, entertainment companies have learned that to lure workers and keep them happy, they must approach benefits in increasingly innovative ways. These days good benefits mean more than decent health insurance, paid holidays and a 401k plan.

“I think they are looking for different kinds of benefits than most workers were looking for 10 or 15 years ago,” says Sharon Foster, vice president of human resources at Rhino.

Employees are making it clear in their discussions with human resources departments at studios, networks and production companies that one of the biggest issues is maintaining the balance between their work and personal lives.

More and more, people are interested in talking about a lot more than their basic benefits,” says Jody Horwitz, vice president of human resources at the WB Network. “Work-life issues come up in virtually every hiring negotiation.” And that’s true, she adds, from the highest to the lowest levels of the company.

To remain competitive, companies have responded by offering benefits that help with these issues. Rhino Records, for example, offers paternity leave.

While paternity care is still fairly unique, other benefits have come to be more widespread. Foster says that employees now seem to expect some form of subsidized child care, which wouldn’t have been the case even 15 years ago. Studios such as Disney, Fox, Universal, MGM and Paramount have on-site child care facilities as well.

Horwitz says that in addition to child care, various departments offer flexible schedules, or jobs shared by more than one employee. “There’s definitely a move in that direction,” she says. “All of these things are geared toward being better able to work out sometimes conflicting demands of work and family.”

Domestic partner benefits are also now offered at a large portion of companies. “I don’t know an entertainment company that doesn’t offer it,” Foster says. In general, she adds, entertainment companies seem to have a higher awareness of medical coverage in all areas.

But Lawrence Haberman, editor of Entertainment Employment Journal, says that younger workers in particular are far less attracted by traditional benefits, and more intrigued by companies that offer unique on-the-job perquisites.

He recalls seeing one survey that examined what workers wanted. “It wasn’t what you expected, especially for the newer people,” he says. One thing that stood out to him was workers’ desire for free soft drinks on the job. “The Coke machine was more important to them than retirement benefits.”

The lesson from all this, he says, is that companies have to recognize what their employees want, rather than assuming that a traditional benefit package will satisfy everyone. And because people work longer and longer hours, their work environment is increasingly important. “Employers have to find ways to make work more fun.” One way to do that, he says, is to get employees more involved with their own companies –and some programs that do that are indeed very popular.

At the WB Network, for example, all employees are invited to attend a weekly meeting with the head of the network. “It’s not something that we advertise as a benefit, and yet it is something that makes us a unique work environment,” Horwitz says. “It’s a very open discussion about what’s going on. Really, everyone’s opinion is invited.”

MGM also looks for ways to keep employees informed. “I’m finding that the employees — at least here — thirst for information about the company,” says Steven Shaw, vice president of human resources. To satisfy that need, the studio has instituted an “MGM in Focus” program, in which a senior executive from one of the studio’s divisions explains to interested employees what his or her division does. “With each session we’ve had, we’ve packed the theater to capacity,” Shaw says.

Another way to get people involved is through employee incentive plans, like the one offered by MGM. “Typically, incentive plans are reserved for more senior-level management,” Shaw says. “This is an all-employee incentive plan. Everybody stands to gain.” At the beginning of the year, he explains, each employee sits down with his or her manager and sets “stretch goals” for the year — goals that will be possible yet challenging to attain. If those goals are met — and if the company makes a profit — then the employee receives a bonus at the end of the year. “This is a tool to get everyone focused on the same mission,” Shaw says. “Incentive plans are not new. What’s unusual is that everyone participates.”

Popular perks

Entertainment companies can of course offer extras related to their own business, such as free screenings or discounts at studio stores. Some have on-site fitness facilities, or offer free or subsidized lunches, or tuition for classes.

Other popular benefits encourage the workers to cultivate a life away from the office. Rhino’s community service program, for example, encourages workers to spend 16 hours a year doing community service, which counts toward a paid week off between Christmas and New Year’s. Foster says that many employees already have organizations for which they volunteer, and they are pleased to find that the company supports their efforts. “I think it’s a great recruiting tool,” she says.

Though not strictly a benefit, one nicety enjoyed by executives in the entertainment industry is extensive use of the employment contract. According to Robert Greenberg, practice leader of executive compensation at the benefits consulting firm Towers Perrin, in most other industries only the very top executives — the CEO and possibly a few people reporting to the CEO — have employment agreements. “In the entertainment industry, their use is far more widespread and can extend to relatively mid- and lower-lever executives,” Greenberg says. “The granting of the employment contract itself can be viewed as a perquisite. Certainly it is something that once upon a time was used only at the top of the house and gradually has become more widespread.” Also, many of these employment contracts are actively negotiated with representation. “In the entertainment business, the executives are borrowing a page from the talent side, if you will,” Greenberg says.

Ultimately, a company’s philosophy about benefits emerges from its corporate mindset, and having innovative, employee-friendly benefits has to be a conscious decision. “Just saying it doesn’t necessarily make it happen,” Shaw says. “It takes a concerted effort on behalf of the company to live that philosophy.”

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