Paternalism is a concept that few employers in this modern age of HR wish to be associated with. Many benefits practitioners perceive that the term means dictating to employees about what perks are best for them without paying regard to individual needs. They also fear it gives the impression that employers are providing perks without linking them to long-term business objectives.
However, the concept of paternalism was born in a time when the provision of housing and schooling was, very much, catering to the individual needs of employees who did not, then, have recourse to social housing, state-funded education and the National Health Service. Furthermore, early paternalistic employers, although motivated by the desire to deliver social reform also believed, and indeed proved, that their businesses would benefit from a workforce that was well motivated and rewarded through increased productivity.
The world has moved on and, in the UK at least, employees have the state to fall back on. But there is only so much support that the government is prepared to give as there is not a limitless pot of money at its disposal. It is now calling on employers to take on greater responsibility and to do their bit to rehabilitate the long-term sick back into the workplace and to help provide financial education to staff so that they understand the investment decisions they will be making when the new national pensions savings plan is introduced in 2012, a plan that will also be part-funded by employers.
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The government’s focus on the need to reduce obesity and cut carbon emissions is also prompting employers to take action by introducing health and wellbeing initiatives and bikes-for-work schemes in the workplace.
So have we come full circle to find that a new wave of employer paternalism has washed ashore, instigated by the government’s agenda?
Maybe, but the word paternalism is not being used. Employers do not want to be perceived as though they are telling staff how to live their lives. While they may be providing support, they are adopting an approach that takes account of individual needs by, for example, letting employees choose the perks they want via flexible benefits schemes or offering them guidance on benefits choices as required.
Amanda Wilkinson, Editor