Is Benefits Equality the New Frontier in HR as PR?

Is Benefits Equality the New Frontier in HR as PR?

Over the past two years, we’ve seen a growing number of organizations leverage their HR strategies as a means of enhancing their employer and consumer brands simultaneously. The idea behind this “HR-as-PR” strategy is to make the organization more attractive to candidates—a growing concern in a tight labor market—while also cultivating a reputation among increasingly values-focused millennial customers as a progressive or socially conscious company.

Viewed through this lens, Rent the Runway CEO and co-founder Jennifer Y. Hyman’s recent op-ed at the New York Times illustrates the emergence of a new theme in HR as PR: ensuring that different classes of employees enjoy equal access to benefits like parental leave:

Like so many companies before us, my company, Rent the Runway, had two tiers of workers. Our salaried employees — who typically came from relatively privileged, educated backgrounds — were given generous parental leave, paid sick leave and the flexibility to work from home, or even abroad. Our hourly employees, working in Rent the Runway’s warehouse, on the customer service team and in our retail stores, had to face life events like caring for a newborn, grieving after the death of a family member or taking care of a critically ill loved one without this same level of benefits.

I had inadvertently created classes of employees — and by doing so, had done my part to contribute to America’s inequality problem. …

[O]ver the years, I began to reflect on how the system that I and others had constructed may have been perpetuating deep-seated social problems. Last month, I equalized benefits for all of our employees at Rent the Runway. Our warehouse, customer service and store employees now have the same bereavement, parental leave, family sick leave and sabbatical packages that corporate employees have.

Hyman is also on the board of directors at the Estée Lauder Companies, which recently equalized family benefits along another axis, offering 20 weeks of paid parental leave for all new parents, regardless of their gender or whether they became parents through birth, adoption, or foster placement (birth mothers still receive an additional six to eight weeks of paid maternity leave). Starbucks also recently expanded these benefits for its hourly store employees after activist investors began asking questions about why corporate employees received significantly more generous family leave and whether this might expose the company to allegations of employment discrimination.

Benefits inequality has clearly become, if not a legal liability, at least a brand liability, particularly for large companies that risk being perceived as less generous than they can afford to be toward their employees. It’s also a simple fact that employers need to compete more creatively to attract talent, even in non-professional roles, than they used to. But corporate leaders don’t submit articles to the New York Times about steps they are taking just to avoid liability; in writing this op-ed, Hyman is pushing Rent the Runway’s benefits equality as a brand asset.

Even though the current push for more expansive family leave benefits has been ongoing in the US for over two years now, there’s still a first mover advantage to so many of these decisions: You get the press and the branding for being ahead of the curve and inclusive. If you wait, you end up adopting these progressive benefits anyway to keep up with your competitors. Of course it’s a gamble, because if a trend doesn’t catch fire across your industry, you have to either continue providing an expensive benefit or deal with the negative press that comes with taking that benefit away.

But does anyone really think the trends of inclusive family leave and benefits equality are going to reverse themselves? Hyman surely doesn’t; she’s wagering that they will be standard practices in a few years. If and when they do, organizations that equalized benefits before it was the norm will enjoy a brand boost and an advantageous position in talent attraction and retention, while their competitors are left scrambling to introduce similar benefits and create an employee value proposition that reflects the times.