The Good Works Perk

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It would take the stars and the moon to lure Suzanne Suzuki, a quality engineer at Agilent Technologies electronics and communications company, away from her job. Agilent allows Suzuki, 45, to share her workspace every day with Barbara, a one- year-old golden retriever she is training as an assistance dog for the disabled. In the workplace, Barbara is exposed to being around all kinds of people, office chatter and noise. She attends meetings with Suzuki, accompanies her to the copy machine and visits the employee cafeteria--all the while learning to remain calm, focused and able to handle a variety of stimuli--skills the dog needs in order to assist a disabled person in daily activities. "My work with dogs is so much a part of my very being," Suzuki says. "Not every employer is going to understand the passion and commitment that I have to doing this."

Suzuki is a beneficiary of Agilent's policy of supporting employees' philanthropy where possible. This includes providing up to four hours a month of paid time off for volunteer work and helping staff members find volunteer opportunities in their communities via a central corporate database. "Anytime you can offer a benefit that is important to your employees you will have an edge over the competition--especially in a competitive field like ours," says Cynthia Johnson, vice president of public affairs in charge of Agilent's philanthropic efforts. "If employees feel good about us as a company, which is what we hear, they will be happier at work and ultimately do a better job for us."

More and more employers these days are supporting the work of community-minded professionals like Suzuki. They have to. Even with the economy slowing, a tight labor market has prodded companies to satisfy their employees' ever increasing need for work/life balance and social consciousness--or risk losing them to more progressive competitors. This is especially true in fields like technology, financial services, banking, insurance, travel and law, where employers have to work hard to woo top talent.

"You're now seeing obscenely wealthy people in competitive fields like investment banking say they're missing something in their lives," says Robert Goodwin, president and chief executive officer of the Points of Light Foundation, a Washington- based nonprofit that encourages and supports volunteerism in corporate America. "That need is being fulfilled by reaching out to others in the community in more ways than just writing a check." And it doesn't look like an anticipated economic downturn is going to slow down this trend anytime soon. "God help the company that doesn't support employees in their volunteer efforts, now or in the future," says Tom Casey, Boston-based partner in charge of the attraction-and-retention practice for Unifi Network, the human-resources consulting arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The number of companies assisting employees with volunteer efforts is growing about 25% a year, says Carol Sladek, work/life consultant with Hewitt Associates, a Lincolnshire, Ill., human-resources consulting firm. Nearly 75% of the employers in Hewitt's annual survey of the 100 best companies to work for provided time off for community service last year. And in 1999, 48% of employers included formal volunteer programs as part of their business plan, vs. just 19% in 1992, according to a survey of 248 companies conducted by the Points of Light Foundation. Nearly half of all employees in a variety of fields took their employers up on offers of paid time off for community service, according to a study conducted by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center at Harvard University. "A corporate volunteer program is not going to replace a competitive salary or advancement, but it will help round out a nice total package for employees," Sladek says.

The Carlson Cos. of Minneapolis, Minn., a hotel and restaurant conglomerate, offers a cutting-edge example of the new urge to help employees do good while they do well. This month Carlson is rolling out a special online database that employees can use to find volunteer openings in fields as diverse as teaching reading to adults, building homes for low-income residents or rehabilitating sick birds. The database will also notify individual employees of specific opportunities in their areas of interest. Corporate executives say the program could help reduce turnover 5% to 10% for the company, which employs 50,000 people worldwide. The initial cost of the project was $100,000, with a dedicated in-house team of 12 Web developers. "This database will give me a nice, easy way to find some volunteer work without having to do too much digging. I'm excited about it," says Sharon Heikkila, 44, a Carlson training specialist.

Minda Shultz, 36, an advanced claim analyst with American Express Financial Advisors, offers a good example of how the philanthropy programs can pay off. Shultz has been able to spend large amounts of time offering aid to hospice patients, in good measure owing to the support of Amex. The company paid for Shultz, a 15-year company veteran, to take a six-month sabbatical in 1999 to volunteer for Hospice of the Lakes in Minneapolis, an organization that provides medical and social-service care for dying individuals. For employees who have been with the firm for at least 10 years, the company offers a one-to-six-month paid sabbatical to do volunteer work in a field they choose. "You can bet I'm staying put at a company that actually pays me to take time off to comfort and care for those who are dying," says Shultz, who first became involved with hospice programs in 1995.

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