A Publication of WTVP

What are the ethics of perks? Employees at any level in any company may have access to perks, which I define as amenities that benefit an employee, provide added savings, allow access to rewards, or pamper the employee in some special way. Who owns the perks? Should there be regulations on perks? Am I simply being a perk jerk for suggesting these questions? After all, employees seem to value them, and they provide a needed morale boost in some cases, especially in difficult jobs or demanding situations.

Perks become a problem when they influence an employee to make company choices that are based not in the best interests of the employer, but for the employee. Maybe an employee will book a very expensive and complicated airline itinerary because he or she receives frequent-flyer miles to use for personal travel. The problem? There was an inexpensive and more convenient airline alternative that could get the employee to the business destination. What's fair?

Another example: Some vendors give points for sales of particular products, and these points are put into personal accounts. One national vendor for a local company gave purchase points for product purchases and opened named accounts for employees with whom they did business. The points could be redeemed for all kinds of neat stuff, from audio gear to personal fitness equipment to gardening tools. Some employees directed all business to this vendor-even though there were cheaper and equally good alternatives from other vendors.

A final example: An individual representing a tax-supported agency traveled to conferences on the taxpayers' dime, attended a workshop or two, and then went shopping and sightseeing in some pretty nice cities. Did the paid conference expenses include lots of fun personal time?

Why are perks an ethical issue? Because perks influence choices, and decisions have an impact on business practice, productivity, and financial performance. Some people don't argue about perks because they believe they're a way to provide some employee satisfaction in an otherwise challenging job. But there's a line we cross when perks become the guidelines to, rather than the benefits of, decisions.

There are three key ethical issues when considering perk policies. The goal is that everyone in the organization, from frontline worker to CEO, is governed by the same set of policies.

First, who owns the perks? If the person is representing the company and is on company business, technically the perks are part of the company's employment. Perks are owned by a company-not by an individual-unless the individual is paying for the activity that generates the perks. This fact is an important reminder to people who think they're entitled to perks.

This isn't to say perks automatically are retained by the business; a business can determine which perks it'll use to reward and motivate and which it'll retain to be shared among all in the company or to provide charitable benefit. But perks aren't an employee entitlement. This may be news to many employees. Be clear about which perks the employee can accumulate from business transactions and which ones stay with the employer.

Secondly, how are the perks earned? If they're earned by enticing the employee to make inefficient cost or time decisions, then the company has every right and need to step in and give direction on the decision-making process. On the other hand, if perks are accumulated through the normal course of business-airline miles through flying normal itineraries or purchase points when making prudent purchase decisions-then they benefit the employee and the employer. In this case, perks can work. Maybe the public servant should have been expected to attend a certain number of sessions and report on what was learned before taking time off.

Finally, how are perks redeemed? Many perks are redeemed online, and all information reflects an individual recipient. Employers need to step in and clarify how perks are redeemed. Should free hotel nights be used by employees on business, on their own vacation time, or should they be redeemed for charitable use for a family with a severely ill child needing medical care? Should purchase points be redeemed for an air purifier for the office, the home, or for a door prize at a charitable event? Employers can determine how perks are redeemed if they were earned during the course of business.

Okay, I'll admit I've redeemed my share of perks in travel and purchase. But in the end, it's an employer's decision to make personal use of these amenities. IBI