Human resources professionals know diversity efforts can fail if not coupled with inclusion initiatives. There are myriad ways employers can work to ensure workers feel a sense of belonging at work, experts say, including through employment benefits.
“Employee benefits play an important role in recruiting talent and upholding the employer brand,” said Samantha Melendez, management consultant on diversity, equity and inclusion for Helios HR. “Those from traditionally marginalized communities often experience social, political, and economic disparities, and denial of participation or exclusion is a common life occurrence.”
An inclusive employee benefits package offers unspoken support and consideration, she explained, developing a sense of loyalty, improving work performance and mitigating stressors.
Know your population
It can be important for HR pros involved in benefits decision-making to have a deep understanding of their workforce. For example, Melendez said, flexible leave programs, flexible scheduling, child care provisions and even on-site day care can go a long way for certain populations.
“Statistically, people of color are more likely to live in multigenerational households, often placing adult employees in the sandwich generation that cares for their parents and own children or dependents,” she explained, adding that caregiving resources or education around flexible spending accounts also could benefit individuals with these duties.
Benefits can serve as a powerful signal that a company values workers’ presence and contributions, according to John Dooney, manager of workforce analytics for the Society for Human Resource Management. Benefits that cover gender confirmation care, for example, demonstrate a commitment to belonging for transgender employees.
Adoption and surrogacy assistance can be of great interest to LGBTQ+ workers, Melendez noted, as well as a gender-neutral parental leave program. “Employers should also work with their carriers to ensure benefits are available for domestic partners of employees and validate and affirm that such relationships are consistent with other spousal relationships,” she said.
Mental health benefits can demonstrate a commitment to disability inclusion, Dooney pointed out. Companies prior to the pandemic, he said, were hesitant to discuss this issue, but since then have become more comfortable both talking about and providing support in this area. While access to more healthcare benefits virtually everyone, it may be especially helpful for neurodiverse individuals.
“One of the things we see is a significant increase in use and value for mental health benefits. No one used to take that seriously, but we see increasing use available of [these services]. It wasn’t a high-use benefit previously, but after the pandemic people saw value in that,” he said. Telemedicine in general, also improves access for a variety of individuals, he said.
Watch for unintended consequences
Just as employee benefits can attract diverse candidates, they can have the opposite effect. According to Dooney, a failure to publicly value flexibility may do just that. Many people today, he said, will simply reject a company if it doesn’t have a remote work policy that fits with their lifestyle.
“There are some tasks and jobs where an employee must be in the office and people understand that. But for people who don’t have that restriction, [they ask] ‘why does this company not have this option?’ It could send a signal of being overly controlling, not trusting,” he said. “And even if that isn’t the case the signal is still sent, so if a person is moving companies and looking at their options, that can almost telegraph the culture.”
An employers also may signal that it doesn’t value someone by making decisions about them without them, Melendez said; a company that wants to improve DEI and foster an inclusive and welcoming workplace should take employee consideration into account whenever it renews its benefit structure, which may include discussion of unique new benefits. HR also may need to check for non-inclusive language or images in benefits documents, and consider whether it offers different benefits to different employee groups.
“Transparency with employees is vital when exploring benefits, making changes or deciding not to make desired changes due to cost,” Melendez said. If an HR team is consistently fielding benefits questions, that likely means employees don’t know what’s available, she continued. “Having a compassionate HR team who [is] available to discuss employee options will go a long way. Employers should also lean on their brokers and carriers for information related to mental health, family expansion, caregiving and financial resources,” she said.
While a large organization might have plenty of room to maneuver in offering or modifying benefits, a smaller one may be more constrained, Melendez noted. This means smaller organizations need to get creative in their benefit offerings, she said, potentially through education.
Members of marginalized groups may not have received the same development opportunities like internships and mentorships that others had, she said. “Offering educational and advancement resources can help bridge the skills gap, giving the employee more confidence in their work performance. Offering industry-specific learning opportunities — such as a book allowance, conference registrations, webinars and training — is a great start,” she continued.
Walk the walk
Employers may need to acknowledge that sometimes benefits may be there on paper but workers don’t feel psychologically safe taking them. Both Melendez and Dooney said managers should lead by example and aim to be seen taking advantage of such benefits; there can be less fear involved in using a benefit if one’s own manager does so as well.
“One of the best solutions is to have managers take the benefit,” Dooney said. “One of the things you see in telework is I’m not teleworking because my manager isn’t. But some companies said, look, you have to telework yourself and communicate that to others.”