Dangling Unique Perks May Hook Your Next IT Hire

FRAMINGHAM (07/31/2000) - Remember when a simple raise made employees happy?

With the market for highly skilled IT talent tighter than ever, money is not enough anymore. Benefits like profit sharing and stock options, sabbaticals, on-site massage and free health club memberships are no longer a big deal, either. In fact, they're a big yawn.

Outrageous and extraordinary perks have emerged as the hottest new weapon in the battle to attract and retain network managers and other IT staff, says Doug Berg, chief techie at Techies.com, an IT recruitment Web site headquartered in Minneapolis.

"Companies today are offering much more than the standard soft benefits like telecommuting or casual dress. We're seeing clients of Techies.com allow dogs at work, give out clothing allowances, host extravagant annual retreats, and provide free gourmet meals on site," Berg says.

And that's not all. A recent survey of benefits provided by 120 Techies.com member companies around the U.S. revealed such unusual lifestyle goodies as cash bonuses on the birth of a child, an on-site bowling alley, free country dancing lessons and hair styling by a top New York salon.

Once reserved for executives and top-producing salesmen, flashy company cars have become popular big-ticket enticements for tech talent.

When John Hathaway left his job at Sterling Software Inc. two years ago to take a senior software architect position with Mirronex Technologies Inc., an e-commerce start-up in Princeton, N.J., he scored a leased BMW in addition to generous stock options and a base salary.

"Start-ups often have low salaries, and this was the case at Mirronex," says Hathaway, who has since been promoted to director of technology. "I could have gotten three times that [salary] anywhere else, but it was the kind of job I knew I would excel at. It didn't bring my salary back up to what it was [at Sterling] but the car made the decision easier."

If a BMW isn't your bag, what about free vacations? Three years ago, Heather Bye-Kollbaum was hired as a network infrastructure technologist at Born Information Services, an e-business consulting firm in Minneapolis. Born piqued her interest with its policy of providing access to 13 company-owned vacation homes. Employees receive time slots in order of seniority. They pay their own transportation to the chosen destination, but stay in Minnesota lakeside cabins, Florida condos, and Colorado ski lodges for free.

"I go to a cabin every year and I always bring family or extended family to enjoy it with me," says Bye-Kollbaum. "I love working for Born for many reasons, but the cabins and other benefits they provide are high on my list of reasons why I stay," she says.

Trips are also a popular way to reward a job well done. In July the entire MarketSoft Corp. IT department, their spouses and children enjoyed a five-day, all-expenses-paid trip to the Captiva Islands off the coast of Florida. The trip was a thank you for meeting several network infrastructure milestones, including the successful move of MarketSoft's network, migration of the company's e-mail system, and the design of an IP telephony strategy for the Lexington, Mass., firm.

Mark Chandler, director of Information Technology at MarketSoft, believes trips and other unique incentives help reduce turnover. "IT recruitment is one of the hardest positions to hire for, and incentives like this work like a charm.

Stock options and bonuses are nice, but everyone has those. A trip like this makes MarketSoft unique, and I feel it's a step above what most companies offer."

If you're desperate to fill a key networking position, promoting special benefits and extravagant signing bonuses is one way to give your business an edge, but realize there can be a backlash, cautions Hathaway of Mirronex.

"We found that trying to hire senior-level positions without offering these big perks made it hard to convince people to come aboard," he says. Though the promotion was instrumental in helping the company fill several essential tech jobs, the BMW ad also unleashed a deluge of unqualified applicants, a major reason Mirronex has discontinued the offer.

There's also the potential of sending the wrong message to long-time staffers if you reserve the fancy cars and fat bonuses for new blood.

Boston-based application service provider Breakaway Solutions Inc. avoids this pitfall with a smart internal referral program. Points and cash bonuses are given to Breakaway employees that make successful referrals. The more senior level the new hire, the more points given. Employees with the most points at the end of each quarter are awarded such items as a leased BMW Z3 convertible (five will be offered this quarter) or a large-screen plasma TV. To date this approach has generated more than 680 referrals and over 80 hires, 20% of them networking staff.

At a time when talented IT people can write their own ticket, "people are ultimately looking for an environment they can thrive in and feel good about," says Maureen Ellenberger, Breakaway's chief people officer. "We're always looking for things that [our staff] will value as extra incentives, but the most important thing is to make sure that they have a rewarding career path and feel like they're growing and doing great work."

Berg of Techies.com concurs. "While we've definitely uncovered some fun and enticing benefits that seem hard to pass up, in the end, employees want purpose and meaningful work, and not meaningless perks."

Then again, throwing in a free backrub couldn't hurt.

Georgia is a freelance writer based in Hudson, Mass. She can be reached at bonny@wordsatwork.net.

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