How to Remove an Employee Benefit (and Avoid Mutiny)

Posted by Brandon Carter on Sep. 14, 2020

Let's use our imaginations for a moment.

Last year, your executives miraculously signed off on an amazing employee benefit: private helicopter rides. They even threw in unlimited fruit snacks as well.

Both were designed to bring in and engage the reclusive Millennial Ruby Web Developer.

Everyone loved these new employee perks, obviously.

The rare web developers emerged from their hidden bunkers in droves to work for your company. You went through 500 packs of shark-shaped fruit snacks a week. The helicopter was so busy you heard the whir of rotors in your sleep.

It was awesome.

But completely unsustainable.

Now, management says they have to go, and you, beloved HR representative, are the one who gets to deliver the news.

Is there a way to deliver this blow without an employee uprising? What do you do?

How to Cancel an Employee Benefit without Crushing Employee Engagement

As if open enrollment season and rising premium costs didn't present enough challenges, many of you may also find yourselves telling employees that some of their favorite benefits are soon to vanish.

It probably isn't something insanely cool like free on-demand helicopter rides for everyone. Maybe you're just taking away something small, like bowls of candy around the office.

Whatever it is, removing a benefit is one of the worst parts of the job. No matter how you do it, some employees are going to feel cheated.

Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to at least minimize the outrage and not jeopardize employee engagement.

Keep these five principles in mind the next time management approaches you about taking an employee benefit away.

1. Get Your Managers Onboard

This is sort of the headline of the entire HR profession, right? Your ability to effect change and positive culture shifts in an organization will only go as far as managers will carry it.

These are the people with direct authority over the staff. As they go, so goes the rest of the workforce. That means you need to get them on board with the message first.

no high five

Explain why the benefit is going away and how the decision fits into the overall plan. Leverage the executive team if you have to.

But make sure they know the positive message to take to their teams. It may be tempting for the manager to make the message something divisive like, "THEY took away our helicopters and there's nothing WE can do about it." That sows discontent in the office and long-term, it jeopardizes employee engagement.

2. Break Your Own News

It’s PR 101. If you wait too long to deliver your message, you risk the chance that word will seep out through the grapevine. And when that happens, you lose control of the message. Too often it turns into a giant game of telephone where crucial pieces of information mutate or are even left out completely.

Try to save the news for all-at-once delivery rather than informing employees here and there around the water cooler. Though it may seem harmless, it can easily go awry.

You’ll save yourself hours of time clarifying the change with upset workers by maintaining ownership of the messaging and tone.

3. Sandwich the Message

Another classic PR tactic. Bring some good news, deliver the bad news, then top it off with more good news.

Here’s an example:

"We're adding two new holidays this year. We're taking away helicopter rides and fruit snacks. And then we've negotiated an ongoing 50% off deal with Uber."

That's how you could deliver the news if management only gave you three sentences, but hopefully you get the idea.

Just to be clear, we're definitely not suggesting the other popular political "bad news" tactic of releasing information late on a Friday afternoon. Instead, put it out there at a time when employees have the opportunity to ask questions and won’t spend the weekend fretting over the unknown. You want to get the message out there as quickly and efficiently as possible, so you don't get a continuous stream of people into your office asking where the helicopter rides went.

4. Offer an Alternative

We hinted at it above, but sometimes a benefit can be replaced by something comparable and lower cost.

Instead of free helicopter rides, you could offer an employee discount program that includes deals on other modes of transportation.

Instead of unlimited fruit snacks, you could offer occasional healthy treats like fresh fruit and granola bars.

Offering a suitable alternative may not quell all the resentment, but it'll show that the company is still making an effort to help employees meet certain needs that were met with the previous benefit.

New call-to-action5. Be Transparent

When you kill off a benefit, one of the first thoughts that will run through employee brains is, "Is the company in trouble?"

After all, why else would you need to take away a benefit, if not to shore up cash to deal with some sort of crisis?

That could be true. Or it might not. Maybe management would rather just reallocate the funds elsewhere. Maybe there just wasn't much usage of the benefit.

Either way, consider offering some transparency to employees. Let them know why this is happening, and how it's a good thing overall.

We recognize transparency is somewhat dependent upon each culture. Some corporate cultures are totally open, to the extent where everyone knows exactly what everyone else is making. Others are more private, preferring employees stick to their jobs and let management handle the big picture.

Either way, be as honest as you can with employees about why they're losing a benefit. Take it as an opportunity to earn trust, instead of stoking the fires of suspicion.

When Good Benefits Go Bad

Not every benefit is a slam dunk. Some sound great, but just don't resonate with employees.

Others, like free helicopter rides, are awesome, but financially unsustainable.

Benefits have a difficult balance between success and failure. A good one helps your business stand out from the crowd and makes current employees think twice before jumping ship. People use it and find personal value in it, and it doesn't place a huge financial burden on the company.

Those are hard to find.  And you're going to have some benefit failures in your quest to find ones that fit in that sweet spot.

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In the meantime, you may have to be the bearer of bad benefits news on occasion. When you do, handle it with care. Rely on your managers, communicate in a way that fits your culture, and you won't risk employee engagement or loyalty.

After all, as cool as helicopter rides are, they don't beat a well-compensated, dialed-in workforce.               

Topics: Employee Engagement + Loyalty, Benefits Trends

Brandon Carter

Written by Brandon Carter

Brandon is a former writer and marketer for Access Development. He's a frequent blogger on customer and employee engagement & loyalty, consumer trends, and branding. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter at @bscarter