“I could buy this building, take the board room and turn it into the employee ping-pong room.” – some startup company

Ally Bates profileOK, that might just be a bad adaptation of a quote from an Aaron Sorkin script, but it seems like every day another exposé comes out on a company and their out-of-the-box employee benefits. While it is debatable whether people actually care about having ping-pong tables at work, the reality of the current job market means companies do need to be creative in developing unique, valuable benefits for attracting and retaining talent.    

“We have the philosophy that if you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of the rest,” said Gwen Schnitzler, AVP/human resources director at Forward Bank, Marshfield, about the bank’s foray into expanding employee benefits beyond the norm. “Our mission is to move our communities forward and we can’t do that without employees who are engaged and committed to the mission. When employees feel that you are willing to take care of them and go to bat for them, they’re going to go that extra mile.”

A program that the bank has had for several years is the “Pay it Forward” fund, which can be used by employees experiencing financial hardship. “It was really created as a way to care for our own,” explained Schnitzler. Each year the bank staff does a fundraising campaign which the bank matches to raise money for the fund. Any employee who runs into personal financial adversity is able to confidentially request funds or they can be nominated by a coworker.

The “Pay it Forward” Fund is not the only unique benefit Forward Bank offers its employees. In November 2018 the bank teased new things were to come to employees, and then in January of this year the bank rolled out three new benefits: “An Evening on Us,” student loan reimbursement, and 529 contribution matching.

“Community banking is built on relationships,” said Schnitzler. “We want to promote a healthy work-life balance and make sure employees are able to build connections to the people important to them.” Out of that philosophy, “An Evening on Us” was born. The program allows any employee to submit a receipt for an evening out with family or friends to be reimbursed by the bank up to $50 once a year. The first employee of Forward Bank to participate in this program was a student teller who took her friends out for pizza and a movie, and since then a number of employees have started using the program. Schnitzler noted that the program wasn’t particularly expensive on the bank’s side, but was a fun, “feel-good” program that was able to touch every employee at the bank and make a positive impact.

Another new benefit, student loan reimbursement, has been a hot topic lately. “Our executive team is very focused on doing right by our employees, and giving them valuable benefits… It’s discussed a lot that a big concern for many people is having to choose between saving for retirement or paying off their student loans,” discussed Schnitzler. The bank’s student loan program through the vendor Gradifi contributes up to $100 towards an employee’s student loan payments for 50 months. This program is estimated to enable employees to pay off their student loans two to three years faster and has been described by employees as a “game changer.” Through the program, one Forward Bank employee was even able to refinance and consolidate his loans.

The student loan reimbursement program is a product of the bank believing strongly in education and ongoing professional development. Going hand-in-hand with that philosophy is the bank’s 529 saving program, wherein the bank will match up to $50 each month into a 529 account that an employee sets up with the bank’s Investment Advisory team, for a maximum of 100 months.

“We want our employees to feel valuable, stay with the bank, stay engaged, and serve our customers and our community,” said Schnitzler, expressing that attracting new talent and retaining current talent has gotten more and more difficult in recent years. Forward Bank sees offering unique benefits to be an opportunity to set itself apart from other employers in the area. And, at the end of the day, “we spend enough time at work, we want people to be happy here.”