Staff Management

6 Ways to Fine-Tune Your Employee Benefits Package

By Diane Palombi, OD

Jan. 3, 2018

As a business owner, you want to be both practical and compassionate, offering employees a cushion in the case of sickness and other needed time off. In addition to being the right thing to do, benefit packages can serve as powerful employee retention motivators. But what happens when employees are able to manipulate the benefits you offer them, so that your patients and business are adversely affected? That’s when fine-tuning is called for.

In addition to spending 12 as a practice owner, I was an employed optometrist at LensCrafters for years, so I have experienced the benefits challenge from both the employee, as well as employer, perspective.

Every job that I ever had offered a certain number of sick days and vacations days. When I became an optometrist, I was also given paid continuing education days. It was a good system for me. However, I was an employee who followed the rules specified by the human resources department. My husband has been a business owner for decades, and has not had the fortune of having only employees like me. He has had employees who tried to game the system. Here are the key questions, and points, to consider when deciding on your employee benefits policies.

Are “Sick Days” Necessary?
Many employees will misuse “sick” days, using them for any day they happen not to want to come into the office. One solution is to simply offer a set number of paid days off, which employees can use for any purpose. That way, it’s up to them if they want to use, and save, at least several days for when they are truly sick, or if they want to use the whole lot of paid days off for relaxation and fun. The key is making it clear that the number of paid days off you have offered is non-negotiable, and if they run out of days off, and wind up sick, it will be their responsibility to cover the cost of staying home.

When employees know it’s up to them to save enough paid time off to protect themselves in the case of illness, they often become more responsible. Such a policy also facilitates a more honest relationship between employee and employer, without the employee feeling the need to lie, or come up with roundabout explanations, about why they need the time off. They have their set number of paid days off they are entitled to, and how they use it is their own business, no explanations required.

Another benefit: The charade of using sick days for vacation days requires that employees only tell their manager the morning of the day they want to take off. If they are able to use time off for any purpose, there’s no reason for them not to give advance notice–unless they are truly sick, of course.

Can Paid Time Off Encourage Preventative Health?
You also have the option of offering specified personal days, some of which can be used as sick days. My husband got rid of sick days, and gives out personal days instead. This way he usually has advance notice when an employee is not coming to work, and yet he can still somewhat regulate that the paid time off isn’t abused, and that preventative health among employees is encouraged.

My husband is one of those rare employers that still pays 100 percent for his employees’ medical and dental insurance. However, his employees usually did not want to take personal time to get a yearly physical and dental checkup. Therefore, he ended up giving them one full paid day off to use for doctor and dental appointments, which can be used in two-hour increments, if the employee chooses. He also gives them half a day off for their birthday. Such a policy shows the employer cares enough about employees to want them to set aside time especially to take care of their own health, and also cares enough to want to celebrate the employee’s birthday with paid time off.

Should You Offer to Pay Employees for Unused Days?
If you are giving employees the freedom to use the paid days off you’ve given them for any purpose they choose, should you also give them the opportunity to get paid for the days they don’t use? This is a hard question because, on the one hand, you want to incentivize employees to come to work whenever they can, but, on the other hand, you don’t want employees to push themselves to come to work with a contagious virus that puts patients, and other employees, at risk of getting sick.

One compromise is to have a policy that looks collectively at unused paid time off at the end of the year, and then if more than a particular number of paid days off was unused by staff as a whole, the entire staff gets to split a bonus. A policy like that may make it less likely that any individual employee will feel the need to push themselves to work while suffering through a contagious virus. Yet it rewards the staff as a whole, if as a group, they have many unused paid days off left at the end of the year.

Another option is to allow employees to carry unused paid time off into the new year. You can exert some control by requiring that they use the time before the end of the first, or second, quarter, and by not allowing them to take more than two full paid weeks off at one time.

Should You Help Employees Budget their Paid Time Off?
Another challenge my husband has run into is employees using their paid time off too quickly. If, on January 1, they automatically have all their paid time off for the year available, some employees will go hog wild, taking off time from work early in the year. He had one employee use up all his days by October 2017. Then, he got sick, and had to have his pay docked. So, effective 2018, employees are on an accrual basis for vacation and personal days to avoid this happening again.

The way this works is each month an employee accrues a vacation day, or a certain number of paid hours. All employees could accrue one day of paid time off per month, or you could reward employees a higher accrual rate who have been with you longer. That could mean, for instance, that those who have been with the practice for five years, or longer, accrue two paid days off per month, and that those who have been with the practice for 10 years, or longer, accrue 2.5, or even three, per month.

How Do You Manage Overtime Pay?
Overtime can also be a touchy situation. An employee could work 38 hours one week, and 42 hours the next, on a two-week pay period. Under my husband’s first system, which was based on 40 hours per week, the employee was entitled to two hours overtime, although he had only worked 80 for the pay period. This system was being abused, so my husband had to implement a pay period overtime system with 80 hours being the minimum.

Should You Require Employees to Clock In?
Try to avoid requiring employees to clock in as a policy. You can always implement clocking in as punitive measure for a particular employee, whom you suspect is taking advantage of you by repeatedly coming in late, taking long lunch breaks, and leaving early, but requiring all employees to clock in and out can cause ill will.

One of the doctors I worked for as an employed optometrist started making all the salaried doctors clock in and out, including for our lunch hours. It created animosity. We were professionals, and did not like to be treated in this manner. We often worked through our breaks, and if we wanted to take a little longer lunch break, we felt it all averaged out. You can’t monitor every minute of your employees’ work day. If you’ve hired right–and your employees are responsible, respectful people–this type of micromanagement of time is not necessary.

The key when to managing benefits packages: Think about what your patients require, and what your practice requires to remain profitable, but also consider what your employees need to feel and perform at their best.

Does your practice offer paid time off? If so, how do you manage it, so patients, practice, and employees, all benefit?


Diane Palombi, OD, retired now, is the former owner of Palombi Vision Center in Wentzville, Mo. To contact her:

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