The Loop

The Subjectivity of Employee Benefits

Filed under: Benefits

Marvin Bower, the 17-year managing director of renowned consulting firm McKinsey & Company, once defined marketing as "objectivity." If marketing is objectivity, then perhaps the discipline of human resources could be defined as "subjectivity." On the surface, it is the job of HR to hire, train, and support a company's human resources with competitive compensation and benefits. From a practical standpoint, its job is to insure that the company treats its people fairly, equitably, and legally. And therein lies the rub.

The U.S. workforce is presently more diverse than ever. You have young people entering the workforce, but you also have greater numbers of seniors still working – more so than in previous generations. According to the Department of Labor, women comprise 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, and the Brookings Institution reports that immigrants make up about 16 percent of the workforce. Both of these numbers are significantly higher than 30 years ago. Now that we have a far less homogenized society, our benefits programs must be more subjective to meet the needs of this diverse labor force.

But employee benefits need to accommodate far more than just demographic changes. Today's definition of "family" has changed, and as we've seen with the recent ruling of the Defense of Marriage Act and subsequent IRS guidance on tax filings, our current perception of family may continue to change dramatically in the future.

Today's benefits packages typically provide coverage for family members. But what does today's typical family look like? For some, it's the traditional husband and wife, 2.5 children and a dog. But then there are families in which young adults move back home from college while trying to secure a foothold in their career, often remaining for years at a time.

Some workers must welcome grown children and grandchildren in to the empty nest as the result of divorce. As freshly-minted single parents adapt to a new lifestyle, working grandparents must often step in and play a pivotal role in childcare responsibilities.

As our life spans increase, senior parents play a larger role in our lives. In an effort to avoid expensive nursing care, elderly parents may move into your employees' homes. Even if seniors do not move in, their needs may make increasing demands on your workers' time and resources – giving new meaning to the word "dependent."

Then there are blended families – the modern day Brady Bunch. Some children living full- or part-time in your employees' households may require health care insurance coverage. Others may have health care coverage through an ex-spouse's plan, but still need dental or vision coverage. With the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, it is likely that adoptions will become more commonplace. Then again, while working to provide the appropriate level of benefits for worker's with complex family structures, don't ignore the need for comparable levels of benefits to single employees with no family.

The changing profile of America's workforce may well be the most significant issue impacting employee benefit plans today. Are your benefits designed to scale for these types of scenarios?

Today's HR professionals are very focused on the cost of providing benefits. We look to smoking cessation and wellness programs to encourage healthier lifestyles. We stay current with new legislation, such as the health insurance coverage requirements of PPACA. We're focused on training to ensure that our employees receive the skills and knowledge necessary for job performance. We provide competitive compensation plans for key positions. And we constantly look for ways to take advantage of technology for more effective communication and delivery of benefits.

But many employees are more engaged in the complexities of their own life than the demands of work. Most of them are probably in a constant struggle to balance the two. Instead of stepping back to get a full 360° panoramic view of our workforce, perhaps it would be useful to step forward and magnify these growing segments of our employees. In other words, to provide for our employees fairly, equitably, and legally, perhaps we should examine their needs more subjectively.

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