Company Pays Employees to Follow Their Dreams

Company Pays Employees to Follow Their Dreams

What would you do with $1,500?

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek May 10, 2018

Payroll specialist Keagan Case flew to Maui this year for surfing lessons, thanks to a unique "experience benefit" from his employer, global software company Qualtrics.

A co-worker went diving with sharks.

Another climbed a volcano in the Philippines.

Their once-in-a-lifetime experiences were funded, in part, by a $1,500 perk from the Provo, Utah-based company. It rolled out the bonus to its 1,700 employees in January in lieu of the $1,000 bonus it used to give at Christmas. Qualtrics leaders started the benefit to encourage people to fulfill their dreams instead of spending their Christmas money on more mundane items, such as bills.

"We help organizations manage the experience of their employees, their customers," said Mike Maughan, head of global insights for Qualtrics. "It's important for us to do the same" for employees.

Qualtrics' new perk is unique among bonuses. The Society for Human Resource Management's 2017 Employee Benefits survey found that bonuses typically are given as part of an executive incentive plan, to employees for successful job candidate referrals, and as spot awards for employees who perform beyond the expectations of their jobs. Additionally, sign-on bonuses for executives and nonexecutives have increased over the past five years.

At Qualtrics, a full-time employee who has worked at least one year at any of its 14 offices—regardless of one's job performance rating or review—may submit a form outlining the experience he or she has planned. Qualtrics deposits the money into the employee's account for that purpose.

"We're not going to judge and say 'you should do this or that.' … We want you to do what's meaningful for you, and we want to empower you to do something [special]," said Maughan, who used his bonus to visit his parents who had moved to Melbourne, Australia.

Unused bonus money does not accumulate, as the company wants to encourage employees to savor life.

"We believe that to be the most productive and happy, employees need to have time to unplug. … We want all employees to have an experience every year, and it's important to us that they are encouraged to use [the bonus]," he explained.

Skiing in Austria, Seeing "Hamilton"

Fulfilling dreams creates a valuable dynamic in the workplace, according to Matthew Kelly. He is the author of The Dream Manager (Hachette Books, 2007) and founder and president of Floyd Consulting Inc. in North Palm Beach, Fla. He holds dream session meetings with his employees, asking them to each list 100 dreams and to categorize them by those they want to accomplish in the next 12 months, in one to five years and beyond five years. 

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]  

"When we know the dreams of the people around us, the natural response is to want to help them live those dreams and it creates a team dynamic," he said in a YouTube video. 

Talking about aspirations, he said, "creates a manager-employee dynamic that is much more powerful than anything else you can talk about with them than on any other day of the year. It creates a team bond that you simply cannot create by talking about your business," he said. "If you want [employees] to do something for your business, teach them to do it for their lives."

Fulfilling a dream appeals to people of all generations, but Qualtrics' Maughan noted that Millennials—who make up about 80 percent of the company's employees—are especially focused on experiences. 

"Even in terms of the job, they don't want a 'job,' " he said of that generation born between 1982 and 2000. "They want an experience they can share. They want a story they can share." And 668 employees have taken advantage of the opportunity so far.

Like Padraig Morrissey, 27, who has had a passion for skiing since he was 17.

The technology consultant at the company's Dublin office used his bonus to ski the Harakiri slope in Austria. With an incline of up to 78 percent, a vertical drop of 1,230 feet (375 meters) and a length of about 0.9 miles (1,500 meters), it is among the nine scariest ski slopes in the world, according to Conde Nast Traveler. 

"This bonus has allowed me to take that passion to a new level, skiing the steepest groomed slope in the world … [and] given me the opportunity to bring out my adventurous side, and for that I am very grateful," he said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

Rob Towne, digital advertising manager, took a trip to the Philippines, where he climbed a volcano and went deep-sea fishing. He used his bonus to fund part of his vacation and to deliver books to children at a local village, coordinating with the school in advance to learn what it needed.  

Justin Ethington, a thought leadership market researcher, launched a charity that raised more than $4,000 for an orphanage in Kenya. 

Bridger Harris, a senior account executive, hiked the Great Wall of China.

Craig Cusick, director of enterprise sales, bought third-row, center-stage orchestra seats for him and his wife to see the musical "Hamilton" in Chicago. 

His wife is a fan of Broadway shows, but without the bonus it was a pricey experience they probably wouldn't have shared, Cusick said. The money covered nearly everything for "a good night out with my wife," including their flight from Utah, the theater tickets and dinner.

"I experienced something I'd never experienced before" and that opportunity "creates a tie, a loyalty" to the company and a buzz of excitement in the workplace, Cusick said. The bonus exemplifies the company's culture of wanting the best for its employees, he added. The most challenging aspect "is choosing what great opportunity we do next year."

The bonus also serves as a recruitment tool, according to Maughan, who noted that was not the intent when the initiative was rolled out.

"It's indicative of who we are as a company, the way we think and how we consciously created a culture that helps people to have an incredible experience inside the walls of the building and outside the walls of the building," he said. Companies have to be able to create memorable employee experiences, "if people want to keep working there."

Dreams Come True

Here is what some employees did with their experience benefit.

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