Consultant believes companies provide too many benefits


Work and family programs. Corporate-sponsored drug counseling. Company fitness centers. Employer-subsidized legal advice. Stress management programs.

These and a host of other employee benefits that have sprung up in recent years, complementing the traditional company health and pension plans, strike many employees as an unqualified good.

But Laura Nash, a Harvard-educated classics-scholar-turned-business-ethicis t who treasures the image of Socrates as gadfly, sees something pernicious in the employer largess: corporate Big Brotherism or, in the phrase she likes to use, the birth of the "nanny corporation."

Ms. Nash's views, floated recently in two articles, are causing a stir among those who help set human resources policies in American workplaces. Since her nanny corporation piece was published last summer in Across the Board, a magazine published by the respected New York-based Conference Board business research group, and later expanded for the fall issue of the Washington-based Wilson Quarterly, Ms. Nash has been inundated with requests for press interviews and invitations to speak.

Some workplace experts denounce her views as an unfair and dangerous attack on laudable programs. Others fear she is lending intellectual voice to workplace "backlash," resentment over perks that do not apply to everybody and that leads some childless employees to complain of too many corporate goodies going to parents.

But Ms. Nash has also found defenders among human resources experts who, while not agreeing with everything she writes, say she raises good questions.

"She's asking 'What are the limits of corporate caring?' " says Arlene Johnson, vice president of the New York-based Families and Work Institute.

Ms. Nash, 46, believes she is forcing scrutiny of what had been an off-limits subject. "There has been almost a taboo on this whole field," she says, adding that questioning the merits of work and family programs in particular is like questioning mom and apple pie. "But there is this very serious issue of how much corporatism is really desirable and whether it's even economically desirable."

A fellow at Boston University's Institute for the Study of Economic Culture, Ms. Nash is also a consultant to companies on ethical matters, an interest she cultivated while doing post-doctoral work at the Harvard Business School. Her consulting work leads her to sit in on company seminars on business ethics, and it was offhand comments she began hearing at these that first got her thinking about trends in human resources.

In one session, an employee asked about the ethics of the company's sponsoring a white-water rafting expedition when two of the proposed participants could not swim.

In others, she learned about some way-out benefits, humor consultants, for example, and, at one company, the purchase of personal carafes to encourage employees to drink lots of healthful water.

Ms. Nash believes these more extreme benefits have something in common with the more-accepted work-and-family benefits and counseling programs: corporate encroachment on private life.

In recent years, as women have increasingly joined the paid work force, she says, corporations have scrambled to provide services once the responsibility of stay-at-home wives and mothers, everything from child care to decisions about health and nutrition. Ms. Nash has called this phenomenon the "feminization of the corporation" -- a phrase that has raised some hackles and that she now concedes may have been ill-chosen because, she says, it is easily misunderstood.

One of the problems with the employer as caretaker, or nanny, she says, is companies begin to assume more control over employees' private lives. "Nice people can use power nicely," she says, "but we all know that power can also be used to injure people."

Ms. Nash asks, for example, whether much-praised company-sponsored child care assistance programs could have a coercive underside. "The employee who insists on taking time off to care for a sick child despite the first-rate day-care services offered by the company may find his or her dedication to the job questioned a little more closely," she writes in the Wilson Quarterly article.

Ms. Nash believes that some benefits are misleading, giving the impression that the corporation deeply cares about the welfare of the employee -- rather than its bottom line.

Finally, Ms. Nash says, the new benefits programs are costing a lot of money; one estimate she cites puts their annual price tag to American corporations at $60 billion.

For defenders of various corporate benefit programs, these are fighting words. And Ms. Nash is earning her share of critics.

"I don't think the average person who works for an American company would say he'd been getting a huge amount of help from companies in this area," quips Fran Rodgers, chief executive officer of Work/Family Directions, a Boston-based company that advises major corporations on work/family matters.

Ms. Rodgers accuses Ms. Nash of creating "this fantasy" about myriad corporate efforts to help employees balance work and family life, a distortion that she thinks could stoke resentment in the workplace. "There's a general fear out there of a diminishing pie, especially in large companies, a sense that some groups are getting more than others -- which is not true," she says.

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