When nothing ever seems to be enough for your employees, this is exactly when you don’t need “fringe benefits” to creep up on you but unfortunately, they will! Whilst you may find them enticing when being offered to you, they can quickly break the bank if not distributed carefully or, even worse, blast team moral if not offered at all.

Now what type of bangarang are fringe benefits anyway? Put in simple terms, it’s a kind of compensation on top of one’s wage, distributed in various formats such as kind (company car, mobile phone, …), social benefits (gym membership, meal vouchers, dental insurances, ….) or even the outspoken fact that everyone found in the office on a Friday afternoon post 16:00 can knock themselves out with free food and alcohol.

Why am I dedicating an entire article to something as petty as this? As you can probably guess by now, this is isn’t petty at all and you already know the drill in case you read some of my previous articles, so let me get to the bottom of it.

The Situation

My company was based in Austria at the time this story went down and I was also running a small branch office in a neighboring country, just behind the border, less than 1.5 hours train ride away. To be clear on this, it wasn’t for cheap labor as many just casually assumed. Although the average salary was in fact a little less (so was the cost of living), the taxes were more or less the same, but we simply couldn’t find enough qualified staff around town and thus had to “nearshore”.

I would be there probably once every two weeks touching base with the team, being a small unit of 3-4 developers, a systems administrator at times, an office manager and a designer. All of them were about the same age, roughly 10 years younger than me. Because the designer was much aspiring to, we appointed him as, what we’d later find out to be job title on his business card, branch director. He was just meant to be a team leader and manage staff requirements, with no executive title as he’d be bearing no statutory responsibilities, but he somehow got that very wrong.

Soon after, we would pay a visit to the guys, coincidentally not telling anyone, hence arriving unexpectedly. What we would find there is the self-proclaimed branch director playing video games on his workstation, fully emerged with his headset on, where all the other employees could see him.

The Consequence

You would rightly draw a ton of conclusions now on what your next steps would be, how your leadership skills failed and how your inability to manage the team well would prompt such situation. But what I am actually going to tell you will sure blow your mind as it did mine.

Of course, we had to do something. My gut feeling was to fire the guy on the spot (which isn’t easy as labor law is not in the favor of employers there), sue the hell out of him for wasting our time and set the tone properly for everyone else who either didn’t tip him off or participated in the scheme.

However, it is very difficult to find qualified people and we had plenty of projects to finish which is why we decided to avoid the operational havoc and just continue with the guy. In hindsight, I believe it was a mistake not to do it, but we haven’t had much choice without disrupting business.

So, from there on, things got really weird. I took this very seriously as I was deeply looking into the issue, trying to find out what more could I have done to prevent that from happening, eventually looking for the mistake on my end. And what happened was a lot:

  • A trusted person blatantly abused power
  • A team finding both their confidence in that particular person and the management shattered
  • A huge lack in productivity
  • Uncertainty about the near-term future of that unit due to misconduct by some

So, whilst I kept studying certain books on the matter, I have also started to ask 3rd parties for help in sharing opinions and advice. One of the told me to get in touch with a local recruiting firm as they’d understand the epitome of what one could perceive as the perfect employer.

I have to admit, he worded it differently. I remember sentences along the lines of:

You developers are all a bunch of chaotic, unstable and unreliable primadonna’s that need special treatment and frequent pats on the back, so go ask someone that is familiar with your business!

Consultant

We got the top guys in the field showing up at our offices, well prepared based on an elaborate briefing document I sent them ahead of our meeting. We also got all kinds of other recruitment companies but whilst they didn’t have the numbers to back it up, we drew similar conclusions.

My biggest worry was the salary and brand reputation (or the lack thereof as we were a small company relative to the big players). I understood that brands such as Microsoft or Oracle just settled in, of course absorbing most of the talent there is in the market. Eventually, I was right with the name, but I was much wrong with the salary. We were overpaying by far and it wasn’t a good thing!

The recruiter told me that employees were looking for, and being offered by the top companies, the following items, ranked by popularity, starting with the most popular one:

  1. Meal vouchers
  2. Brand name and reputation
  3. Less weekly working hours
  4. More vacation
  5. Additional health insurances
  6. Gym membership
  7. Scope of work / elaborate job description

We could never adjust the brand name in a way suitable to address the issue (without becoming Google overnight), but I felt comfortable to challenge the remainder. Meal vouchers is a “conditio sine qua non” in that country, i.e. we were handing them out anyway already.  

If I compare the financial benefit of earning our salaries as opposed to the cash value of less working hours and additional vacation, I’d end up seeing it as a scam on the employee. Obviously the same goes for the gym membership and the health insurance which you have to be delusional in order to sign up for. In case you need to look it up, being delusional meaning “under false illusion”.

I have strongly involved the “branch director” in all these meetings to ensure that we are jointly elaborating on the way forward. My only concern was that he well responded to those proposals in the sense that they’d instill confidence when in actual fact all it does is paying less to delusional people.

When he commented on the benefit of reduced working hours and more vacation over fatigue, a short and concise statement might have slipped. Probably something like, “da f**k you wanna take rest from, …?” I don’t know if I said it, I might have said, probably I didn’t say that, …, well who cares now, …, I said it. And yes, I think working 40 hours a week is joke unless you are in heavy constructioneering, a sheet metal worker or anything comparable.

Job descriptions are something else that have been following me for nearly 2 decades. My experience (not the intelligence available to the general public and the knowledge sold in books) tells me that the further up you go in the chain of command the less sense it makes to compile an elaborate job description. If achieving goals and contributing significantly towards them would be a straight, easy to determine, simple to write down, line, everyone would be a millionaire!

The Solution

After hours, days and weeks of speaking to experts familiar to the matter, knowledgeable and reputable in the industry, paying special attention to their suggestions and assuming that they know something that I don’t, I really found out that the issue was rather trivial.

I was not unable but purely unwilling to provide to my employees what they wanted. And even if what they wanted was, in my point of view, oppression, I should have given it to them. You want 5 more days off a year in return for 15% less salary? Sure, here you go!

The next generation arrived! They communicate differently, both in language and platform, they work differently, and their expectations are different. The simple truth is that things change and so will engagement and leadership. Focus on the fringe benefits when dealing with developers, then, amid chaos, things will fall into place.

For the avoidance of doubt and as I haven’t mentioned that elsewhere in this article, you should always take good care of your people, maintain a healthy relationship and share your values with them as it is self-explanatory and timeless.

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