Facebook raised the bar on employee benefits. Now it’s hoping to start a workplace revolution

It’s a company that regularly collects Best Place to Work accolades and is known for its enviable employee perks. But ask Facebook’s senior benefits director what she is most proud of, and the answer might surprise you: being at the middle of the pack when it comes to benefits.

As Renee Albert tells it, being in the middle means that Facebook has set the bar high — and that other employers have caught up and even surpassed the social media giant.

“Four years ago, we were [one of] the leaders in parental leave. Now I think we have the most success if we start to fall to the middle of the market when we’ve been leading on something,” says Albert, who in her five years at Facebook has seen the company grow to its current size of more than 30,000 employees from approximately 6,300 employees in 2013.

Renee Albert.jpg

A plethora of companies have followed in the footsteps of Facebook’s paid parental leave policy, which gives new moms and dads four months of leave at 100% pay. Some have raised the stakes even higher: Netflix allows its salaried employees, including birth and adoptive parents of any gender, a whopping year off at full pay following the birth or adoption of their child. Twitter gives 20 weeks of paid leave for both new moms and dads. And Airbnb gives birth mothers 22 paid weeks of maternity leave, while non-birth parents get 10 weeks.

The number of employers offering time off for new parents increased significantly between 2016 and 2018 for every type of parental leave, according to the latest figures from the Society for Human Resource Management. And Facebook is, in part, to thank.

“At the end of the day, we’ve redefined what the marketplace is,” Albert says. “And that’s the narrative that I think is so key and so important: People around the world are getting better parental leave because we were [among] the first to do it. I’m most proud when an employee complains to me and says we’re kind of middle of the market, and I say, ‘Yeah, that’s because we moved the market.’”

Facebook’s leading charge on benefits — and Albert’s spirit of collaboration — have earned her the title of Employee Benefit News’ 2018 Benefits Professional of the Year.

“Other companies watch what Facebook does,” says Terry Davidson, CEO of the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, a nonpartisan group that counts more than 8,200 organizations and 32,000 individuals as members. “Their changes relating to paid parental, caregiving and bereavement leave have started discussions among others in the industry. When Facebook implements something new, it gets noticed and talked about.”

But Albert has her sights set even higher. After offering many benefits that have made what she calls a “phenomenal” impact on Facebook employees — from caregiving initiatives and generous bereavement leave to mental health assistance and fertility benefits — she is calling on other employers to do the same.

For her, true success isn’t just about moving the needle internally; it’s about sharing best practices and using what she has learned to lift the entire industry. “When we launch a benefit and it works, we want to share it with other employers and have them come along with us on this journey.”

Getting personal

At Facebook, benefits have always been personal.

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously took parental leave after the birth of both his daughters. Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has been an advocate for bereavement leave since she lost her husband suddenly in 2015. She often posts updates on Facebook that praise other employers who allow employees proper time off to grieve.

And in 2015, when a young engineer stood up at one of Facebook’s regular employee Q&As with Zuckerberg and asked what was available for employees who needed time with a sick family member, a new caregiving leave policy was born. The employee publicly shared that his wife was recently diagnosed with stage four breast cancer and that the only leave he knew that was available was California Paid Family Leave, which would barely pay the bills, Albert explains.

“The next day, our vice president of HR, the employee and I sat down, and [we] listened intently to his story,” Albert says. “He had relocated to the area to take the job with Facebook and did not have family around to help him. He also had three young children, and they were facing the battle of their life.”

Albert immediately crafted a caregiving leave program that allows employees to take up to six weeks of fully paid leave to care for any family member with a serious illness. When she told the employee the news, “He broke into tears and he gave me a hug.”

Those specific stories are unique to Facebook, but the underlying issues are not uncommon. No employee is immune to grief, health struggles or infertility. Benefits should reflect those realities, Albert says. “Employers need to take care of their employees.”

Not every workplace perk is on the rise. Here are the offerings that are not as popular as they once were, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual benefits survey.
November 1

That often starts with education, Albert says. Helping HR professionals understand how to best serve their employees through a range of benefits is important, sure, but it’s not necessarily a priority or a given among busy employers. Benefits professionals, who can get bogged down with administrative or compliance duties, often are a department of one. Some don’t have enough flexibility or don’t know where to start when rebooting programs.

“Traditionally, if you talk to benefits professionals, we end up falling into this as a profession. There hasn’t historically been a lot of education around benefits and what we should do,” Albert explains.

One way Albert is trying to change this is through her work on the corporate board of the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, where for nearly a decade she has been advising other benefit leaders from across the country.

“She gives a forward-leaning perspective on the benefits landscape,” says IFEBP’s Davidson. “We can always count on Renee to share what’s next in benefit trends. For example, she was advocating for plan sponsors to look at new innovations in mental health and fertility benefits long before these benefits were making headlines.”

Fertility coverage at Facebook, offered through provider Progyny, provides employees up to four IVF cycles, including genetic testing, with no preapproval required. The program’s success — fewer miscarriages, high single birth rates, very few multiple births — has made Albert an evangelist.

“When I hear stories about people having better health outcomes, or they’re able to have a baby, why wouldn’t you want to share that with the rest of the world? Why wouldn’t you want other organizations to do the same thing?” Albert says. “We’ve spent a lot of time on the phone talking [to other employers about what Facebook is doing], helping to influence them to adopt [similar policies].”

See also: Why smart employers are offering fertility benefits

The case for caregiving

Albert’s latest educational initiative is through a new whitepaper project with Cariloop, a platform for employees to access caregiving resources, explaining why corporate America needs to step up its support for caregiving employees.

“She is a total trailblazer with the [caregiving] programs Facebook has,” says Michael Walsh, CEO of Cariloop. “Renee was the very first person I called [when I was working on our research].”

It’s an important initiative, and one that’s slowly but surely gaining steam in the benefits industry.

Stats point to the growing need: According to research conducted by Facebook and Cariloop, 69% of working caregivers for a family member or friend report having to rearrange their work schedule, decrease their hours or take unpaid leave in order to meet their caregiving responsibilities.

The average working caregiver spends 20-plus hours a week on caregiving responsibilities — making it essentially an unpaid side gig — and pays $6,954 a year out of pocket, almost 20% of their income, on caregiving costs.

The issue hurts the bottom line, too. Companies lose between $17.1 billion and $33.6 billion annually on lost productivity, depending on the level of caregiving involved, Cariloop says — or $2,110 for every full-time worker who cares for an adult.

Those dire stats are among the reasons behind Facebook’s game-changing six-week caregiving policy. The company also pushed the envelope on bereavement leave last year, doubling its leave to 20 days for the death of a spouse, partner or child, and to 10 days for parents and extended family. Employees can take the bereavement leave intermittently over the course of a year — an acknowledgement that the need lingers beyond the funeral.

“The stuff that [Facebook] does, the team Renee has … it’s first class,” Walsh says. “It’s one of the best we’ve seen in the four, five years we’ve been doing this. We talk to employers of all sizes every single day of every single week, from small businesses with 10 employees up to Fortune 100 [companies], and when I met Renee and started looking at the programs they had, and the rationale and the why behind these programs — we had never seen this caliber of empathy and thought put into these moments for caregivers like Facebook has put into their programs.”

"She is a total trailblazer with the [caregiving] programs Facebook has"

For Albert, caregiving is an important mission, and one that has deeply personal roots. Her mother, she says, was the ultimate caregiver: Widowed at just 29, she raised Renee and her sister by herself. “She didn’t get remarried, and from my perspective she was Mom and Dad,” Albert says, adding that she also cared for her parents after a stroke and Parkinson’s robbed them of their mobility.

When Albert’s mom had a stroke, Albert stepped in as her caregiver. “She moved in with my husband and me at that time, and I took care of her for three years while working full time. As she progressed, she had several more strokes, and she died at our home in hospice with me at her side.”

Albert became a caregiver again in November 2015, when her husband, Anthony, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After weighing their options — they used Facebook’s medical second opinion service benefit with Best Doctors — they selected to pursue treatment and surgery away from their home in Southern California. Albert took four weeks of paid caregiving leave to care for Anthony beginning in January 2016.

“I was able to be at Anthony’s side throughout the treatment and recovery period, both in Southern California and at home,” Albert says. “The fact that I knew I could be by his side and that we were able to face this diagnosis together made me relieved and grateful.”

Facebook loyalty

2018 hasn’t been a great year for Facebook. The social media giant has spent much of the last 12 months warding off criticism from politicians and the media for a lack of transparency surrounding algorithmic news rankings, and earlier this month, Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were grilled by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee over the way foreign adversaries may have used social media to influence the 2016 presidential election.

But despite the controversy, loyalty among Facebook employees runs deep. The company’s annual employee benefits survey, which measures satisfaction and engagement with the benefits programs it offers, found that more than 90% of employees say that Facebook cares about them. What’s more, Facebook was named the Best Place to Work in the U.S. in 2018 by both Glassdoor and Indeed.

On Glassdoor — the website where employees and former employees anonymously review companies and their management — most of Facebook’s page reads like a company advertisement: “Great work life balance in our team.” “AMAZING benefits! Every week I learn about some new benefit I had no idea existed. Facebook cares about its workers.” The company’s overall score on Glassdoor is 4.5 out of 5.

“I definitely think we’re a trusted brand,” Albert says. “It’s important [employees] really trust us and they’re getting the right stuff for the right issues. The benefits play into our attraction, retention and overall engagement. Employee reactions have just been phenomenal. I’ve never been somewhere where we’ve gotten so many thank yous [for] making a difference in people’s lives.”

Among those grateful employees is Victoria Ross, health benefits operations manager, who last year took 14 paid weeks off to care for her husband, then grieve his death.

“I am so grateful to work somewhere that allowed me to do this; that recognizes that time off to care for your family without worrying about your job or your paycheck is essential to having a productive workforce. I needed every one of those weeks,” Ross says. “I will work my ass off for Facebook every day because I actually feel like my employer cares about me, and that makes me want to be here more than ever.”

A sense of connection

Facebook is unique, Albert contends, because employees are so tied into company benefits. When Albert and her team design a program, they sit down with employees and conduct focus groups.

Talking to employees is exactly how Facebook perfected its benefits in the first place. It may be hard to imagine, but the social media giant now synonymous with swanky Silicon Valley perks — its Menlo Park, California headquarters, for instance, boasts on-site laundry services, an arcade and a fitness center — didn’t always have the best offerings. When Albert got to Facebook in October 2013, it was behind on a number of marks: It didn’t have a 401(k) match; it had few life insurance options; its medical plans were “mediocre.”

“Our benefits were pretty lean when I first got here. We were leading-edge with some cash benefits, like we give employees $4,000 when a baby is born. But we didn’t have some of the traditional stuff other employers had at the time,” says Albert, who spent 15 years as senior benefits director at Symantec Corporation prior to Facebook and also worked in human resources at Hertz, Ultratech and McKesson.

“Early on we did surveys every year, and they were more about ‘tell us what you want.’ It made a lot of sense at the time, because we didn’t really have a lot. The very first survey we did, people told us they really wanted a 401(k) match and better life insurance. So I came in got those up and running.”

In the years that followed, Facebook’s benefits grew to an enviable list that ranges from traditional and table stakes to family friendly and innovative. A few examples: Employees don’t have a monthly contribution toward their medical plans (either an Aetna PPO or EPO or Kaiser HMO), unless they add dependents. Mental health is also a priority, Albert says: Employees and their dependents are allowed up to 25 free therapy sessions through provider Lyra.

Facebook’s sabbatical program, dubbed Recharge, allows employees to take 30 days of paid time off every five years. Albert is currently using hers, spending time with her husband in Italy, the Cayman Islands and Cuba. “I have to lead by example,” she says.

Facebook’s internal communication tool, Workplace, often shares benefits updates — and workers are quick to respond. “I just posted a change of leave of absence vendor, and 97 people responded within the hour, saying it was great news,” she notes. “But if I post something and they don’t think it quite met the mark, they will come back and let me know that, too.

“Facebook is really, really open because we are a mission-driven company,” Albert continues. “And that’s how we are with benefits. Through that culture of hard conversations and constructive feedback, that allows us the room and the innovation to do things that really are meeting people’s needs.”

Among those innovations are workplace support groups where struggling employees can find a community willing to help.

“We can take particular life stages — caring for aging parents, having yourself or a family member diagnosed with cancer, maybe struggling with infertility or grief — and our employees at a grassroots level will create workplace communities where they find each other and they have conversations,” Albert explains.

For instance, Facebook employees have created murals in its offices around mental health struggles as a way to curb stigma. And Albert, along with the engineer whose plight jumpstarted Facebook’s caregiving policy, started an internal workplace group called “Cancer @FB” that employees can join if they are diagnosed with cancer or if they are a caregiver to someone they love.

“Some of the most inspiring moments for me are when someone comes in and says, ‘My husband just got diagnosed with cancer; I don’t even know where to start,’” Albert says.

“We, from a benefits perspective, can give them all the benefits data, like how does your insurance work and how does the paid time program work, but another employee who has that experience will step up and say, ‘Here are the things you should know about, and here’s how to navigate through the care. And by the way, I’m on the same campus as you, do you want to meet up and get lunch or have coffee?’

“It’s this reassurance that I’m not alone, and it creates such an amazing, unique culture.”

Still, Albert says, Facebook isn’t done with its benefit offerings — and she hopes other employers aren’t, either. It’s a fluid process — one that needs to evolve as employees’ needs, and challenges, do.

“Saying we’re 1% done is a phrase we use at Facebook a lot, because we feel like there’s so much more we can do,” she says. “And I really translate that to benefits. There are so many hard problems — especially when it comes to healthcare, retirement or student loans — that we have left to solve. I want us to be cutting-edge and help influence the industry on these problems. I want us to mentor and pass on the experience, not only to benefit professionals in our organization, but externally.”

Read more about EBN’s Benny Award winners:

Top of their game: Inside Activision Blizzard’s innovative benefits strategy

Building a better 401(k): How Optanix revamped its retirement plan

High tech to high touch: Taking aim at Type 2 diabetes with virtual coaches

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.