The early stages of the employment experience are critical to setting new employees off on the right foot. But it’s not always clear to new hires how benefits fit into their total rewards package. EBN moderated a panel discussion on recruiting, onboarding and retention and the role of benefits in total rewards during bswift’s annual Idea Exchange conference.

Panelists included Manik Dewan, global head, compensation and benefits at Groupon; Amy Bastuga, vice president, human resources at Radio Flyer; Gabriella Streicher, vice president, human resources at Lou Malnati’s; and Jade Augustine, vice president, North America human resources at CareerBuilder.

What are your biggest successes and challenges with recruitment and retention?

Jade Augustine: At CareerBuilder, where we’ve seen some success is with being able to share the culture with candidates. … we’re able to tell a lot of great stories about promotions within the company, success rates, different opportunities within the company. That seems to really engage candidates early on.

On the challenges side, the majority of our hires right now are on the technology side and our technology group is based in Atlanta. … It’s a tough space right now. There’s a lot of great talent out there and we’ve got a lot of competition. … We’re constantly looking for ways to engage those candidates.

Also see: Attraction and retention in 2015: What employers need to know

Amy Bastuga: At RadioFlyer, one of our biggest successes is our commitment to finding the right match versus just filling a job. We are very, very committed to doing a rigorous process where we are having a lot of two-way communication with candidates so that we aren’t selling ourselves to them, we’re just telling who we are because the truth is, after they start working with us, we might be able to fake it for a couple of weeks, maybe a month, but eventually they’re going to know our truth and know our challenges so one of our successes is just being really honest and spending a lot of time upfront trying to find the right match.

At the same time, that is also one of our biggest challenges right now. For the first time in a long time, the candidates we’re interviewing happen to have two or three other interviews going on at the same time. The market has completely changed in terms of candidates [being] willing to shop around and go for exploratory interviews. So the challenge for us is how do we continue to maintain a rigorous process and not make quick, snap decisions? To help counteract that, we continue to invest heavily in our intern program, which is really the longest interview process in the world. About 10% of our workforce are former interns.

Gabriella Streicher: At Lou Malnati’s, when I think about our biggest success in both recruiting and retention, I come up with the same answer, and that is our people and our culture. We take ownership of our company and I want to work alongside people who are like-minded, have the same values and who just really love to work and love serving people. And our culture is what keeps people.

Our challenge in recruiting is how to digitally let people know what our culture is like. People can feel it when they come to our stores and our home office but how do we convey that message digitally? And the challenge we have with retention is how we maintain our family-feel culture as we continue to grow, especially across state lines.

Manik Dewan: We’re a six-year-old company with about 12,000 employees in 27 countries. Our biggest challenge comes down to having a global strategy for talent acquisition and if it should be a global strategy or a local strategy. We ask ourselves that question every day. We hired around 4,500 employees last year. That’s a lot of people to bring in, onboard, interview, recruit and that is very challenging. … the toughest thing to do is recruit engineers in the Bay area.

Our success is people have the opportunity to work across countries and functions and that’s been huge for us, just because of the growth we’ve had in the past six years.

Do benefits matter? At what stage in the recruitment process do you start talking about benefits, and how do you make benefits a selling point?

Dewan: We have an average age [among employees] of about 25. That’s phenomenal considering it helps us from a cost standpoint, it helps us from bringing in people early and showing them a career path.

For us, benefits matter. But I think that’s not the question a candidate or person working at Groupon is going to be asking. They’re asking ‘what kind of career am I going to have? What are you going to pay me? How quickly am I going to grow? What does the career development look like? When can I get a transfer? Can I go work in another country?’ Those are the things we deal with more.

We still get questions on a daily basis [such as] ‘I didn’t use my insurance this year, can I get my premium back?’ That’s the kind of thing we deal with. And some of it is us doing a better job of educating [about benefits], but that’s [generally] not what the focus is for this young group we have at Groupon.

Also see: Execs say benefits more about retention than attraction

Augustine: They [benefits] definitely matter. It starts from the very beginning. It’s how well you craft the benefits and position them within the job posting to attract that candidate. Our benefits team has put together a really great, simple, one-page sheet that highlights the benefits we offer at the company and our recruiting team uses it all the time. Very early on in the recruiting process they send this out to the canditates. And it allows the candidate to understand what those benefits are, come to the interview with questions about those benefits.

We’re really proud of the benefits we offer at CareerBuilder and it would be really easy to just unload that on a candidate but they [recruiting team] really take the time to ask the questions of each individual candidate – what’s important to them, what stage of their career are they [in] … It’s really important to keep it individualized and that can be really powerful when it comes to extending the offer.

Bastuga: We consider benefits a ticket to the game. You can’t play in the competition that’s out there and you can’t be a best place to work if you don’t have a solid benefit foundation. … Benefits are awesome because they help meet some of the basic needs of all of our employees. So you need a ticket to the game and having solid benefits helps your employees focus on all of the things you want them to focus on, which is your business. We start communicating [about benefits] on our website, before we even meet people.

Streicher: Benefits are important, but in addition to the medical insurance and dental insurance and voluntary insurance and 401(k) and all of that, the question I get regarding benefits is ‘What is Lou Malnati’s like to work for? What is the environment like?’ Candidates come and they want to find a home. A core need is to belong. And they want to find a company where they feel like they belong, they feel like they add value, where they feel like they are part of something greater than themselves. That’s a benefit we really hone in on and that we talk about in the recruiting and onboarding process.

What role does culture play in retention?

Streicher: Culture plays the lead role in retaining our employees. I think Peter Drucker summed it up best when he coined the phrase ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ … We really invest in each other. And I don’t mean just a simple pat on the back with a ‘hey, you’re doing a great job.’ We also point out each other’s blind spots. We’re there to support one another. We have a 5% turnover rate for our managers. People stay. Over 25% of our team members have been with us for 10 years or more. … Our managers are very intentional about teaching [younger workers] a strong work ethic, about how to be a team player, how to communicate.

Also see: Workplace culture more important benefit than wellness

Do you have any unique benefits that make you stand out?

Dewan: We have an unlimited vacation policy. … It’s been fantastic for Groupon. It’s been four years since we put that in. And it just doesn’t get abused. Considering the demographic we have, you’d think people would want to take six months off in a year but they don’t. I think it’s extremely well-managed by the management team, the supervisors, the leadership team and people do take vacations – probably more than you typically might find – but I think the responsibility and the accountability factors really helped us.

We provide manicures at work. Kind of strange, but we do. That’s been great. People come to your cube at work and give manicures and pedicures. I haven’t tried it, but my team tells me it’s fantastic.

We have a nice list. And some of these benefits that we offer – they’re not really cutting off any costs. It’s asking a vendor to come in, provide a service at a subsidized rate – that’s what we’re really doing. It’s not about spending a lot of money from our standpoint. And the benefit is just unbelievable.

Streicher: Lou Malnati’s has a unique benefit that’s near and dear to my heart and that’s our leadership communication groups. There are 15 groups and about 10 to 12 people in each group and two facilitators. And the purpose of these groups is to create a forum for direct, honest and clear communication. But it’s not just a time where we get together to complain. We begin the group with a check-in and that means checking in with yourself and your feelings. And the six feelings we use and those are sad, angry, scared, happy, excited and tender.

And when I started 12 years ago, I thought that was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard. It went against everything I’d been taught about ‘work is work’ and ‘personal is personal.’ But it works for us – we’re a relational company. And by getting in touch with my feelings and with myself, then I’m able to better communicate with those that I work with. So we go around in a circle and everybody does their check in.

And then we talk about support. We learn conflict resolution, problem-solving, communication skills. For example, someone’s having an issue with someone on their team not meeting deadlines. It would be easy for the group to jump in and try and fix that person [who’s not meeting deadlines.] But it’s about [the leader or manager] and what they’re doing. So we help point out each other’s blind spots.

It’s not required that you be in it but those that are love it and are committed. It’s an area where we create safety and trust.

Also see: Don’t confuse perks with culture

Bastuga: Perks are not culture. And perks do get all of the headlines when talking about culture. But these [Groupon and Lou Malnati’s] are two great examples that the perks you select are a reflection of your culture. And for different companies there are different things that will help you build the community that you want.

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