Let My People Go Surfing

About 15 years ago, I read an interview with J.K. Rowling. The author’s most intriguing statement was that she wrote her world-famous Harry Potter series with one audience in mind: the original 8-year-old readers she targeted in her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

As I reflected upon the eight-year history of this column, I realized that I, too, continued to write for my initial readers.

It’s relatively easy to write about employee benefits when you first cover the topic. There are a litany of benefit policies and insurance products a columnist can address. The more challenging work comes later on — and not because material is in short supply. Once you cover the basics, you have no choice but to address the real issues that confound HR executives.

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The majority of my 2017 columns were inspired by what some consider controversial topics — including my first and most recent columns. Admittedly, I was hesitant to springboard off of media coverage of the initial 19 presidential executive orders, the Harvey Weinstein incidents and their impact on employers. But here’s the fascinating thing: Both columns — along with others that focused on radical transparency in benefits design, workplace flexibilitypaid leave for self-care, parental and child care, company values and even Gwyneth Paltrow — created a tremendous of amount of conversation. In fact, I take pride that I received more questions, LinkedIn messages and tweets during the last 12 months than in the prior couple of years, because it’s my goal to spur dialogue and debate that consider both employee benefits and how they help HR leaders attract and retain employees.

This point left me wondering whether any company currently operated in a way that addressed most of the challenges I wrote about this year. (It is no secret that my admiration of Starbucks as an employer is growing, but its strengths tie tightly to corporate values, hyperlocal community investment and healthcare-benefits availability.)

I thought all was lost until I picked up a copy of Yvon Chouinard’s 10th anniversary update of his book Let My People Go Surfing: 10 More Years of Business Unusual. I became enamored with the Patagonia founder’s HR policies and employee benefits when he initially published the book. In 2005, Chouinard’s approach to his workforce was in stark contrast to the onset of a new trend that popped up regarding employee wellness programs — one that was best characterized by another employer that entitled its workforce philosophy as “Get better or else.”

In the original version, Chouinard loosely described Patagonia’s approach toward employees and benefits, with limited detail to investment and cost. In the updated version, however, the outdoorsman-turned-business leader focuses more on why the company takes on many of the benefits discussed lately, starting with the retailer’s mission: “to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

What does this mission have to do with employees? Chouinard writes that “there is a powerful connection between treating our things as disposable and treating the people who make these things as disposable.” This premise has led the company to one of the best employee-attraction ratios around: for every open position, Patagonia averages 900 applications. Check the box on attraction!

Next comes the topic of diversity and inclusion, including the current hot topic of gender respect and inclusion. Patagonia directly states that it values diversity of all kinds and specifically aims to have at least 50 percent of upper-management positions held by women. The company fulfills that target in the U.S., though it transparently reports that it has work to do in Europe and Japan.

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Chouinard believes work must be fun, and that the company values employees who live rich and rounded lives. This principle created the company’s flextime policy that is aptly named: Let My People Go Surfing. This HR directive allows employees to work flexible hours as long as the work gets done with no negative impact on co-workers. Workers take advantage of this policy to “catch a good swell, go bouldering for an afternoon, pursue an education, or get home in time to greet the kids when they climb down from the school bus.”

Patagonia offers comprehensive health insurance to all employees — even part-timers — to attract serious athletes to work in its retail stores.

The company runs a cafeteria that provides healthy, organic food, and most employee bathrooms house showers to accommodate lunchtime runners, volleyball players or surfers.

Patagonia’s most famous perk, however, is its on-site corporate childcare center that first opened in 1984. The center provides programs and services for children as young as eight weeks old through kindergarten. School-age children are picked up at the end of their school day and brought to the child-development center so their parents don’t have to make the drive or worry about after-school care.

The company created a parental-leave policy that complements the design of the child-care program. Mothers receive 16 weeks of fully paid leave and four weeks of unpaid leave, and fathers can tap into 12 weeks of paternity leave. (Chouinard recommends that employers that want to put a child-care center in place provide at least eight weeks of paid parental leave.)

On-site child care is a rare perk these daysFortune estimated earlier this year that only 4 percent to 8 percent of employers provide this benefit.

Chouinard revealed in his updated book that none of the benefits provided are particularly expensive for Patagonia, except for health insurance. The child-care centers (that are only located at the company’s Ventura and Reno corporate locations) act as an unusual kind of profit center. The company charges its employees rates that are comparable to local child-care centers and subsidizes the program with an additional $1 million. Patagonia, in turn, receives tax subsidies.

But the company also contends that the child-care centers offer an additional benefit. Fifty-eight percent of Patagonia’s Ventura employees are women, many holding high-level management positions — the employer believes that the centers help them retain these skilled employees by making it easier for women to progress in their careers. Studies have shown the replacement cost of an employee at an average of 20 percent of salary.

From an HR and benefits perspective, Patagonia comes pretty close to the definition of an ideal employer.

As I close out 2017 and consider discussion topics for next year, I find myself outlining an editorial calendar that may revisit older benefits such as child-care centers and tuition-reimbursement programs. The new tax plan may provide some opportunities for HR leaders to think creatively about how to attract employees with benefits that could include helping graduate students who can’t afford the new taxes that the government will levy on the value of free educations. And I suspect we may still be talking about harassment-free workplaces in the new year.

Carol Harnett
Carol Harnett is HRE’s Benefits columnist. She is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily. She can be emailed at [email protected].