Apr 21 2022

Innovating People Practices Through Benefits

Sometimes the work we do as CEOs, leaders, management teams is glamorous, and sometimes it’s not. But it all matters. One thing we tried to do at Bolster this past year is to really amp up employee benefits. The war for talent is real. The Great Resignation is real. Sometimes startups like ours have natural advantages in terms of attracting and retaining talent such as being made up of letting people in on the ground floor of something, having small teams so individual impact is easy to see, being mission-driven and full of creativity and purpose, and having equity to give that could be very valuable over time. But sometimes startups like ours have natural disadvantages around recruiting like having less certain futures, being relatively unknown to potential employees, being unable to pay huge salaries in the face of the Googles and Facebooks of the world, and having limited career path options since the teams are so small.

My co-founders and I have always been big believers in innovating People Practices. We did an enormous amount of work around this at our prior company, Return Path, which has been pretty well documented and we feel was very successful. Things like our People First philosophy of investing in our team, an extraordinary amount of transparency in the way we ran the company, a sabbatical policy, an open vacation policy, a peer recognition system, 360 reviews (I’ve written about this a lot, but I don’t have a great single post on it – this one is good enough and has some links to others), and an open expense policy.

Most of those things, when we started doing them 20 years ago, were revolutionary. We had our own version of the then-infamous Netflix deck even before we saw the Netflix deck. But today, many of those people practices are more common, not quite table stakes, but not exactly unique either. So this year when we set out to do our annual retrospective and planning process, we decided to try to innovate on a fairly standard topic for people, employee benefits. Although there’s not a lot of room for innovation on this topic, we are doing a few things that new and existing employees alike have told us are noteworthy, so I thought I would share them here.

We started by getting the basics right. We have a good solid health plan, dental plan, vision, transit benefits, etc. And we are paying 100% of the basic plan and allowing employees to pay more for a premium plan. That’s not the innovative part.

Next, we decided to max out the HSA contribution. HSAs and FSAs are some of those things that people don’t really think about, or they think “oh that’s great, employees can set aside health care expenses pre-tax.” But employer contribution to them matters, especially because the plans are portable. So we are giving people whatever the legal limit is towards their HSA, something in the neighborhood of $7k/year for a family plan or $3k for an individual plan. This is real money in people’s pockets, and it takes away from fears and concerns about health and wellness.

Next, we decided to begin addressing two things we felt were always weird quirks or inequities in benefit plans. One is the fact that employees who DO take advantage of your benefits program essentially get a huge additional amount of compensation than employees who DON’T because they are on their spouse’s plan. So we decided to give all employees who DON’T use our benefits program a monthly stipend. The amount doesn’t quite equal what we would be paying for their health insurance (which varies widely for employees based on single vs. family plans), but it’s a material number. So those people who aren’t on our plan still receive a healthcare proxy benefit from us.

Another (and the final thing I’ll talk about today) was instituting a 401k match, but doing so with a dollar cap instead of a percentage cap. Percentage caps FEEL fair, but they’re not fair since the company ends up paying more money towards the retirement plan of the people who earn the most money and who presumably need that benefit the least. The IRS tries to help do this leveling with their nondiscrimination testing, but that doesn’t come close to achieving the same outcome because it’s about employee contributions, not employer matches. By instituting a dollar cap, we are making the statement that we value all employees’ retirements equally. Incidentally, this simple change is proving to be very difficult to implement since our systems and benefits providers aren’t set up to do it, but we will persevere and find workarounds and get it right.

Investing in our people is critical to who we are as a business, and if you take your business seriously, it should be in your playbook as well. Benefits sound like a dumb area in which to innovate since they’re very common across all companies other than the percentage of the premium covered…but there’s still room for creativity even in that field.