The price of perks

One of the first questions we ask when we first meet someone is “What do you do?"

Society puts great focus and importance on our work - job, position, industry, career path – to the point where our jobs define us and tell the world where we fit in. Our jobs compensate us in various ways and it's not always cold hard cash that speaks the loudest.

" Perks can be delicious. And dangerous. They're a currency but the danger is they become part of a black economy."
Marcia Levinstock, Founder and managing editor of content agency PrimaryIdeas

Sure, a desirable, well-paid job equals status, and status equals power, but increasingly there's a more rigorous recognition of a more amorphous element: perks.

Perks can be delicious. And dangerous. They're a currency but the danger is they become part of a black economy.

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Photographer: Arsineh Houspian

Yet in a tough economic climate, when pay rises are the stuff of noughties legend, companies are dangling a tempting array of perks as benefits and satisfiers. Some jobs, by their nature, also attract a higher, more intense perk factor than others.

As a journalist, I well know the deflation of comparing my salary with other industries but then there are the perks: the travel, the fascinating subjects, the ego premium of a byline. In marketing the perks might be money-can't-buy access to events and celebrities. After all, it's part of the job…

At best, perks can open doors, make you more admired, make you more popular.

But at worst, a tempting perk can cloud judgement and land some seriously senior people in some serious perk purgatory. It's something we have seen across the globe in recent times, from corporate executives in the US and France, to politicians in Korea and Australia, to even less senior people down the ranks in organisations, exploiting their position for personal gain.

Judy Reynolds, business coach and chief executive of Opening Gates, says when it comes to using the extra-fiscal benefits of a job, it pays to tread carefully.

“A salary or a range of perks is an enabler," she says. “It all enables you to live the life you lead. But as with any enabling substance, it's hard to quit the addiction."

And Graeme Bricknell, Head of Global Financial Markets at Korn Ferry Australasia, warns perks don't drive employment decisions and nor do they offset a stagnant role in any sustainable way for the most talented, senior people.

So what are some of the other tempting treats jobs can attract?

Well let's just say that a ham at Christmas no longer cuts it. The perks of 2015 include physical items such as champagne, whisky, luxury hampers, and French perfume. But also those intangible, money-can't buy travel opportunities and 5-star hotel stays, exclusive invitations, glamorous parties, membership of "secret" societies, discounts, inside information and access to the famous and fabulous.

So, what is so wrong with accepting a perk or two? Well, absolutely nothing – as long as ethics and a healthy dose of reality balance out the picture. But it is that grasp of reality which can be difficult to hold.

Reynolds says too often, it slips. "Ego and intellect take over our life and the heart is neglected, leading to a life of imbalance. Ego can be responsible for poor decisions, because there is a fear of failure."

Our work has bled so thoroughly into our private life our definition of who we are as people is melded so tightly with who we are as professionals. This makes difficult a healthy assessment of how sustainable and genuine the sparkly world of perks really is.

"People define themselves by their job or industry. When that's over, there's nothing left," Reynolds says. "People think 'without the job, the status, the money, the sweet incentives, I'll be nothing'. But they really need to extend the definition of 'you', and see yourself beyond the job."

And judging by the latest research, many of us should be doing just that.

Research data from SEEK reveals a high rate of discontent among the Australian workforce. Three in four workers were unhappy and actively monitoring the job market - restless, discontent, and ready for a change.

In Queensland, in particular, 52 per cent of the 2.5 million workers across the state polled as unhappy in their jobs.

A report released last year by The Australia Institute revealed the work life balance is deteriorating, with four out of 10 workers working unpaid overtime. So, are our aspirations matching our actions?

Not necessarily. In that figure of 1.3 million unhappy Queenslanders in the SEEK research, only 23 per cent are likely to make the switch this year.

We may be excited by the prospect of change, of greener pastures, but the reality of the process and the fear or loss is so confronting, most people avoid it.

The dilemma of 'should I stay or should I go' is normally associated with an unsatisfying, toxic personal relationship. But as that work-life balance becomes ever more elusive (it's a phrase googled 50,000 times a month) and as we appear more married to our jobs than our partners, the true purpose of staying in a potentially promotion-less, dead-end job should be examined.

This is the climate in which perks can come to have an exaggerated and even destructive influence.

Reynolds says there are four reasons why we choose our jobs.

"The first reason is just for money," she says. "Even if you don't like your job, it enables your life and your lifestyle.

"The second is for the career – you're motivated by a desire to succeed and glory of the position. The third reason is the job is your calling – you have a natural gift, the work you do is an integral part of progressing your 'why' in life. And the last reason is fulfilment: this is what you love to do and you do it with passion and meaning."

(Hands up those in the fourth category?)

Job dissatisfaction is not a uniquely Australian problem of course. In January this year, a Gallup Poll in the US found only 30 per cent of people were happy at work.

The most common reasons for career change include not making enough money, a lack of opportunity or excitement in their current field, burnout and a lack of upward mobility.

Korn Ferry's Bricknell says in those instances where stagnation becomes the norm, no amount of perks can possibly tempt the employee to stay.

As an executive search consultant working at the C-suite level, Bricknell sees a shiny new perk as being just a temporary, short-term solution to the bigger picture problem. "If people believe they've done the job, they've outgrown the role and company can't provide additional learning and opportunities, they will move on," he said. "Companies can disrupt it a little bit, entice employees, but they end up leaving within 12 months anyway. It's quite common, we see it a lot."

Bricknell says the new currency is experiences: "At the executive end, what people are most interested in are progression, training, education and other opportunities to grow your skill set."

Other considerations are flexible work arrangements, an attractive package, entry at a high enough level of management to make promotion and progression easier, and financial assistance if relocating to another city.

"No-one's talking about the lunches or the car or the travel," Bricknell said. "The FBT changed things a lot… We're doing a role for one of the major airlines at the moment, and no-one's talking about free travel."

Ultimately, when we assess our current life conditions versus our blueprint for happiness, Reynolds says creating a plan for your life shouldn't just include asset accumulation.

"Happiness is different things to different people, but don't neglect health, recreation, spirituality, social life, work, family," she says.

That way, if you are made redundant from a job that you've let define you, and if you've only measured your status and worth by a job with power or perks (or both), your emotional and psychological trauma when that job is a thing of the past will be significantly decreased.

"We lose ourselves in our job. Set intentions to separate yourself, even though it can be confronting."

More confronting than being photographed suddenly slumming it in economy class…

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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