In this season of gratitude and giving, some companies are offering their personnel a way to make those virtues tangible.
One such company is New York-based Business Intelligence Associates (BIA), an e-discovery firm that has an office in Portage with 20 employees.
About seven or eight years ago, one of the firm’s staff members had a severe family emergency that required her to use up all of her paid time off (PTO).
The company wanted to help, said Brian Schrader, BIA president.
“Like many, she and her family didn’t have the resources to be able to continue for long after all of her available PTO and other leave had been exhausted,” he said. “In looking for ways that, within often-strict employee/labor laws, we could help our team member in need, we discovered a company that had created a PTO donation program.
“We immediately adopted that program, and the employee was able to take several more weeks without having to go on unemployment, disability or other assistance.”
Schrader said most needs for leave time fall within the three to five weeks of PTO the average BIA employee earns per year, depending on years worked in the company, so relatively few have had to take advantage of PTO sharing.
“It’s really a program that comes into play in those thankfully few instances where an employee has such a severe and lasting need that their normal PTO is exhausted,” he said.
Financially speaking, the impact on BIA of allowing leave sharing is low since it’s mostly a matter of moving already-allotted leave from one person to another.
But one of the things BIA had to consider before implementing the program was what the differential in pay rates might cost the firm after PTO is transferred.
“When we first got into it, (we knew) for accounting purposes, you have to track accrued PTO. One of the things we thought about was when you value a person’s PTO for accrual purposes … say I get paid $10 an hour, and you get paid $20, you’re getting PTO time that’s worth $10 instead of $20 or vice versa,” Schrader said.
“We looked at that and said, ‘At the end of the day, it’s not worth preventing this.’ The differential isn’t that much for most employees.”
A factor that helps prevent abuse of the policy is the family-oriented culture at BIA, Schrader said. Its close-knit teams usually already know when a co-worker is struggling. They know about the opportunity to share PTO, and they know the need is genuine rather than someone trying to game the system.
Schrader said while BIA hasn’t seen a one-to-one correlation between the leave-sharing policy and talent attraction, it is a benefit that never fails to surprise prospective workers.
“We were looking to do something above and beyond the normal. Most of our peers in the same market, as we are, offer basic health insurance. But we wanted to do the shared PTO,” he said.
Other perks the company offers include lunch-and-learns, where BIA provides free lunchtime training sessions; company outings to baseball games; and a “Wow” program in which employees vote to recognize the excellent work of their teammates, and the company rewards winners with a $1,000 bonus and three extra PTO days.
The company also offers the opportunity for employees to take three extra PTO days for community service at a charity of their choice. Schrader said whole departments often opt to volunteer as a group at the same place.
Partly thanks to these bonding activities, turnover at BIA is fairly low — last year it was around 5 percent of the company’s workforce of 65 to 70, Schrader said.
“We have employees who have been here five, 10, 15 years,” he said, noting the company is 15 years old.
Retention is increasingly important in such a tight labor market, Schrader said. It’s not just the Michigan office that has a hard time finding qualified workers; it’s also BIA’s other offices in Washington, D.C.; New York; and Denver.
“When we first moved into Michigan in 2008, it was the worst year of the economy (during the Great Recession),” he said. “Then we saw a swing in Michigan. When we first came in, there were tons of people in the job market. You would put out a posting for five or 10 positions and would get hundreds of applications. Now you don’t.
“Even today, a lot of it depends on the position. If I’m looking for a computer forensic expert or attorney — the highly trained, highly skilled workers — that’s harder.”
Although a lower unemployment rate is a good thing for the economy, it means the programs BIA puts in place for retention and workplace culture are crucial.
“We want people to get up and not dread going to work, but to like the company, the programs and the people they work with,” Schrader said.
“It’s not just touchy-feely. It does help the business. If everybody’s enjoying themselves and getting along, it translates into a better work environment and a better experience for customers.”