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6 Lame Office Perks, and Ways to Do Better

As workplace relationships sour, so can company reputations. So think first: Are you rewarding or insulting?
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We've all heard stories of companies scaling back their benefits and perks to save money during the recession, but the stories gathered here are in a class of their own.

The following so-called perks -- such as coffee, snacks and even health care -- all went awry though insensitivity and a lack of common sense. Unfortunately, as workplace relationships sour, so can companies' reputations, making it imperative for managers to think before rewarding workers with something they might consider more of an insult than a treat.

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Read on for six woeful tales of bad office perks, then one that wound up better than some expected:

Who's buying coffee?

Kathi Elster

, an executive coach and the co-author of the book

Working for You Isn't Working for Me

, knows a thing or two about navigating the social minefield that is the workplace.

Elster also knows some miserly bosses: One travel agency she consulted for had a less-than-stellar record of making its agents feel well-regarded. When they requested a coffee maker, the agency complied but refused to buy the coffee.

Rock the boat

Getting stuck in the elevator with a colleagues might be awkward sometimes, but at least it only lasts until you arrive at your floor.

Now imagine being trapped on a boat filled with people you hate for three hours. That's exactly what Elster says happened when a group of doctors decided to throw a holiday party to smooth over prickly relations with the hospital's administrative staff. Not only did half the office skip the much-heralded event, the doctors wasted $20,000 on a splurge that just made them look spoiled.

"People don't want to be in a party that's confined and you can't leave when you want to," Elster says. When you think about renting a yacht, be smart and use the break room instead.

Damaged goods

Dianne Davis, a marketing consultant based in Oklahoma, says her husband's boss loves treating his employees to snacks such as chips, candy bars, crackers and cookies.

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The team of medical technology experts was touched by the gesture at first. Then they discovered everything was expired.

"

He was off-loading his expired product onto his unwitting employees," explains Davis, who says the boss was running a snack company on the side. "And when they quit eating them and started going elsewhere for snacks, he was ticked off that they weren't supporting his efforts to provide snacks for the crew. Loserville!"

Thanks for nothing

Many employees look forward all year to their holiday bonus, but the architects at Duane McLemore's old firm in Los Angeles didn't expect this surprise: No cash, just office chairs.

"Our boss had the chairs delivered to the office during business hours and had the employees put them together," McLemore says. "They had to put together their own Christmas bonus."

This was also the same boss who refused to reimburse workers for using public transit, though he was already paying for company parking. Years later, McLemore says, he found a brochure touting the firm's so-called sustainable business practices. "He managed to claim he

paid for employee's public transportation fees without actually having to."

Bon voyage

Taking a trip on the company's dime isn't always all it's cracked up to be.

Take for example, the supposed perk of having the company pay for an overnight stay on Friday and Saturday nights. It seems great at first, but "really, people who travel that much just want to get home," explains Penelope Trunk, a career expert and the creator of

BrazenCareerist.com

, a social network for Gen Y professionals. "The company saves more money on the flight with a Saturday night stay, so the company is basically asking the employee to spend two extra days on the road for no particular reason."

Traveling and working abroad can also impose unforeseen taxes, warns Kathleen Kurke, president of

Starbridge Group

, an executive placement firm. "One employee I worked with was awarded an all-expenses trip in recognition for a job well done, but the IRS found out and imposed a tax penalty on the income."

Bad for your health

Health care is often the most coveted perk among employees, but not all plans are created equal. While some companies may claim to have coverage, others may refuse to offer any at all.

Jill Houk, a chef at

Centered Chef Food Studios

in Chicago recalls a co-worker who "signed on to a private

plan for better coverage and less of a cost," she says. "I later found out that the company contributed zero dollars to each employee's health plan, and this was at a company where the CEO was featured in a major Chicago weekly and flew a private jet."

Houk had also signed on for the health benefits. But what initially seemed like a perk quickly became a burden, as Houk had to shell out a hefty $500 to cover the expense each month. "It had a $2,000 deductible and no credible doctor would take my plan," she says. "I quit after seven months."

A dot-bomb payoff

Sometimes a bad perk does take a turn for the better. Richard Hayman, president of

Just Moulding

, a crown molding company in Maryland and Virginia, remembers being the newly installed CEO of a dot-com company in 2002.

"The 'no-cost' perk I came up with was a half a day off for each month we were profitable," Hayman explains. "Not one employee thought much of the idea, since in the previous three years they had never come close to making a profit. But we did make payroll, and in the third year the entire staff got an additional five and a half days off. When I reminded them that everyone thought it was a bad idea way back when, the uproar was deafening. So, naturally, I continued it."

Lessons

"Most companies really want to do right by their employees," assures Kurke, "but the onus is on the employee to know what you need or want."

Here's are some tips for making the most of your company's benefits:

Be clear about what you need.

"If you take public transportation to work," Kurke says. "You don't need reimbursed parking." Similarly, if you're bent on getting health care, don't presume you have to take your employer's. "People operate under the assumption that the only way to get health care is through your employer," Kurke says. "But if it's a priority, you're better off getting it on your own."

Compare the company's benefits to your must-have list.

"If there's a gap, see if you can negotiate," Kurke says.

Expect give and take.

"Ask what you're willing to trade" when negotiating, Kurke says. "You might be able to give up options that aren't important to you. And remember that anything a company offers to you that has a potential cash value can possibly be interpreted as income." So if vacations aren't a must but health care is, see what you can do to trade up.

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