When we’re children, we want stuff for Christmas. Toys. Games. When we’re adults, the last thing we want is stuff. It clogs up our houses. It gathers dust. We don’t want it. But – crucially – we know what we do want. And that’s why we want people to give us money. But some people just don’t think that’s right. They feel like they haven’t put effort in. Like it’s not very personal. Like it’s not very loving.

Ironic, really, because they’ll be giving us what we want by allowing us to make a choice. And that’s a loving thing to do, right? Unfortunately HR just doesn’t seem to buy into this viewpoint. To be a caring organisation, says current groupthink, we need to fill up employees’ stockings with stuff – that is to say, benefits.

In fairness, some of these benefits are genuinely useful to everyone. Life assurance and pensions are great employee benefits. Everyone loves them. They cushion your life. But fresh fruit in the kitchen? A day off on your birthday? Firstly, I don’t like grapes, and secondly, my day off will be tarnished because the next day my inbox will be a crime scene.

More and more, we’re making assumptions about what people want from their employer – and this is dangerous. “But fresh fruit is healthy,” I hear you cry. “And we should be encouraging our people to be healthier!” Yes, you should, but not at their expense, which of course it is, because if you’re providing fresh fruit there’s less money in the budget for what they do want. Employee benefits cost money – they are in no way free to employees but are often presented that way.

Ironically, these softer employee benefits are designed to make people feel more like individuals, in the vein of “My organisation cares about ME because they provide what I need to be healthy.” Does getting Christmas presents you don’t want make you feel like an individual? No, it makes you feel like people don’t know you. And the more we assume we know what people want, the less they will feel like individuals. So why do we assume people want to be provided with fresh fruit, to join a gym, to attend social functions? Why is it that when someone says they can’t come to a social function at work, people give them stick for it?

We’re also making mistakes when it comes to work-life balance. The current thinking is that if we spend more money on providing benefits it’ll help employees achieve a better work-life balance. But this is flawed logic. When organisations spend money, employees have to become more productive. Work-life balance is, fundamentally, about stress and time. If you want to improve a person’s work-life balance, cut out employee benefits and use the money to hire another staff member to take on half their workload. Now that will help them relax a bit more.

So, how the hell can we please every employee when they want different things? It’s not like our fresh fruit bowl can have one banana just because Gareth likes a snack with his afternoon cup of tea. But fortunately there’s a solution: everyone likes money!

Maybe it’s time we go back to the basic principles of Henry Ford? “Make the best quality of goods at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.”

And then we let employees decide what they want to do with their money. After all, the sum total spent on employee benefits can be translated into an amount per employee – let’s reduce the administrative burden on the company, and increase the choice given to the employee, by just plonking this pot of money on their pay packet.

Then if Gareth wants a banana with his afternoon cup of tea he can buy it himself.

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