Feature – In depth: The influence of the spouse

Designing packages for staff or would-be employees may no longer be sufficient, as spouse and partner influences abound, says Bea Oaff

Case Study: International Financial Data

Most organisations have come to recognise that employee benefits can catch and keep top talent. Leading employers at least try to make their package as compelling as possible. But regardless of what goes into that package, designing it only for employees and potential employees may no longer be enough. The suggestion is that you have to consider their other halves too.

All this raises two key questions. Why? And how? Gail Kinman, an occupational psychologist and a senior lecturer at Luton University, argues: "How someone sees their reward package can now be affected by how their partner sees it, it [can] be a powerful decision-influencer." If this is indeed true, you’ll appreciate it is a relatively recent development. "In the past, most couples really didn’t discuss in any great detail what their job did and did not provide," says Kinman. Several reasons have been put forward. In summary, it was mainly men who held the positions that attracted reward packages, the nature of those packages rarely allowed for any choice, and even if they did, it was not seen as the women’s role to be involved in making them.

"Clearly, wide-ranging changes have washed away these reasons and, in addition, revealed another – the desire to create a work-life balance," says Kinman. With both women and men increasingly keen to achieve some sort of equilibrium between their professional and personal commitments anything that can help with this is duly attracting high consideration and serious conversation.

Anecdotal evidence appears to confirm as much. Talk to a range of professionals and they will tend to tell you that they do sit down with their spouses to chat about what’s available, whether that be flexible hours and more holiday or share options and a savings plan. And sometimes the package will be assessed purely for its value. The following is said to be typical: "I think that’s a great pension plan; you should really go or stay with that". At other times, the package will be assessed also for its compatibility and ability to complement a partners’.

This process can create a ‘total household statement’ or an at-a-glance view, of what, as a team, is brought in. Organisations which ignore this type of partner power may do so at their peril. Heather Sawyer, senior HR programme manager for the specialist outsourcing consultancy IFDS, says: "They will be missing a trick." Sawyer contends that if a reward package is alienating to, for example a wife, she may turn her husband against that package. Its capacity to act as a recruitment and retention tool is, therefore, diminished somewhat. However, the reverse also applies.

So its capacity to act as a recruitment and retention tool is, therefore, boosted somewhat. "In the first scenario you have a potentially negative influence on the ground; in the second, a potentially positive one. Both will be active," concludes Sawyer. So, just where do you start in dealing with all this? It is probably most helpful to identify the factors that determine a partner’s perception of a reward package.

These will encompass the partner’s own characteristics and priorities. They will also encompass the package’s actual content and style. Someone’s financial outlook can be a significant factor in determining their perception of their partner’s reward package, particularly its pension plan and any share plan. A partner who tends to focus just on their short-term security may feel quite neutral towards a pension plan but be quite attracted to a share plan, particularly if they can see a potential gains being made within three to five years, according to Martyn Phillips, a senior consultant at Towers Perrin.

And a partner who tends to focus on both the short term and the long term? "They will probably be very keen on both," says Phillips. Someone’s sense of wellbeing can also be a significant factor in determining their perception of their partner’s reward package – particularly health-related benefits. Darren Smith, a total reward consultant with Hewitt, says the likes of income protection, health screenings, critical illness cover and private medical insurance will be of interest only to a partner who has some experience of injury or sickness, or who can see themselves suffering from them.

And the likes of subsidised gym membership and bike purchase will be of interest only to a partner who is either fit, or wants to be. But if a partner thinks their physical state is either immortal, or just not worth worrying about, "health-related benefits could well be lost on them," says Smith. Whether someone has, or hopes to have, children is the final significant factor in determining their perception of their partner’s reward package. Consultants point out that the family situation can colour almost all elements of a package. A share plan may be seen as a smart way to save for school fees.

A health plan that offers cover to dependents can be seen as a useful way to ensure immediate access to quality medical care. A death-in-service benefit may be deemed reassuring in preparing for the worst. An enhanced statutory maternity and paternity leave allowance may be deemed helpful in balancing work and life.

As can other optional extras such as childcare provisions, either vouchers or an onsite nursery, plus the capacity to work flexibly and take extra holidays. Even home computing schemes could be positioned as a plus to the quality of family life. And they are placing an increasingly key role in allowing employees and their families to view benefits packages online before making decisions.

Paul Watson, a consultant at 4th Contact, says: "It all comes down to variety, breadth and flexibility. Create something that accounts for different ages and life stages. Then give people the freedom to pick and choose what is best for them. Finally, communicate all this in a way that is friendly and accessible to an employee and their partner alike. Chances are, everyone will be won over." As always, it’s that easy. And that difficult.

Home access to computers

Many employers post benefits information online, so even before someone decides to take up a job offer they can view the perks from the comfort of their own home. It also means they can discuss options with families before making a decision. With increasing numbers of employees having access to computers at home (often through home computing schemes), employers could consider giving password-protected access to individual benefits information online. Staff may prefer to model pensions, a share scheme or flexible benefits choices in the privacy of their home and to discuss options with a partner. After partner power, what will be next, child power? For years, leading car manufacturers have tried to ensure that their models appeal to their youngest users. Richard Davies, head of employee benefits at motivational specialists P&MM, says there are signs employers may have to follow suit: "It is not only spouses that influence benefits’ decisions. We know from HCI that older children [influence] decisions."

Case Study: International Financial Data

Outsourcing firm International Financial Data is taking major spouse-focused steps. Senior HR programme manager, Heather Sawyer, says: "We offer flexible working, childcare vouchers, the possibility of taking extra holidays in exchange for a reduced salary; we run a home computing initiative, a personal savings plan, and provide an annual financial review with an independent financial adviser [which] can take place at someone’s home." Information about benefits is also sent to employees’ home addresses. "They can show them to their partner and discuss them together. This approach seems to work for us," adds Sawyer.