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The hottest spot in a lot of companies recently has become the HR and benefits space.

How the national spotlight on employee benefits is shaping corporate strategy

Restaurant companies have an opportunity to be leaders on high-profile workforce issues, says policy expert Joe Kefauver of Align Public Strategies

Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Align Public Strategies, a full-service public affairs and creative firm that helps corporate brands, governments and nonprofits navigate the outside world and inform their internal decision-making. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management.

joe-kefauver.gifAs a long time “corporate guy,” I’ve always found it interesting how outside trend lines and unforeseen events or circumstances can take over the mission and direction of a particular function inside a company.

For example, the relatively quick ramp-up of the national packaging conversation and subsequent legislative and regulatory proposals have suddenly changed the priorities of purchasing and supply chain divisions within companies to find “sustainable solutions” to their packaging challenges. And as such, those challenges have become corporate priorities placing that particular division of the company into the limelight (or hot seat). 

It could be the marketing team that is suddenly faced with the challenge of engaging in the chicken sandwich wars due to the uber-successful marketing campaign of a competitor. It could be the PR team after an incident or the CSR team responding to a natural disaster. For better or for worse, the outside world often throws curveballs that unexpectedly redirect and/or repurpose some piece of the company. And as Mr. Dylan, said, “the times they are a-changin.”

From a public policy perspective, over the last few years and likely for the foreseeable future, the hottest spot in a lot of companies has become the HR and benefits space. Yup, the sleepy old benefits department has become, to paraphrase my Dos Equis buddy, the most interesting department in the world. It currently sits at the intersection of some of the busiest highways in America and is evolving into one of the major areas of innovation for many companies. 

For context, the industry has performed relatively well over the last few years and customers are continuing to eat out. But in a period of record-low unemployment, many companies are finding that while attracting customers is hard enough, recruiting and retaining good employees is even harder. Brands are fighting with the competitor across the street not only for foot traffic but for workers. And, the HR department is tasked with making their company the “employer of choice” — competing toe-to-toe with other brands for the best available talent. For companies that rely on a relatively young workforce, the challenge is even greater. 

Besides the fact that younger workers increasingly want to work for a business that “shares their values”, they also want their workplace benefits to be more “relevant” — and immediate — to their everyday lives. 401(k)s and dental plans don’t have quite the currency with younger workers that they once might have had and benefits professionals are being forced to innovate to compete. 

In my travels with various companies, I have come across brands that are paying for worker’s Spotify accounts, letting workers utilize their company’s appliance maintenance contracts for their homes, subsidizing child care and becoming increasingly aggressive in the education and tuition reimbursement space. 

Disney’s Aspire program is the gold standard in this area, underwriting the total cost of a four-year college degree for its workers, regardless of job classification. Other companies are leveraging platforms like the Working Scholars program which allows working adults to pursue their degrees in an online micro-lesson format specifically tailored to workers who, like those in our industry, likely don’t have the available time to take traditional hours-long classes multiple times per week. All of these innovations are coming out of the HR and benefits world.

Then there is the public policy world. Even in a political environment as partisan and rancorous as ours is currently, there is one area in which Democrats and Republicans can be — and are — working together, and that is in the area of workforce development. Love him or hate him, the president has made workforce development, training and apprenticeships one of the major policy initiatives and has delivered in a big way. Governors, whether blue or red, are following in lock step. Preparing future workers to work or preparing current workers for the future of work is a national priority, and who better to assist than the Industry of Opportunity: Restaurants. Once again, cue the HR  and benefits department. 

It sits at the confluence of clear national priorities like preparing workers to enter and succeed in the workplace of today and tomorrow and clear corporate priorities like attracting and retaining the employees needed to sustain the business. There is no time like the present to be a leader in the benefits and HR world. I hope our leading companies will take full advantage of the opportunities. 

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