3 Crazy (and Clever) Ways Employees Have Taken Advantage of Employer Benefits

James O'Brien

It might be a breakfast bar at your startup, or a fitness center at corporate headquarters, or simply an education-incentive plan that helps you develop your passions and interests, but nearly every employee knows that workplace benefits are part of what make good jobs worth keeping.

In a few cases, however, even the best of us can get a bit carried away.

1. Long-Distance Delivery.

Family and medical leave is a big deal for almost anyone. Except maybe in this case. John C. Garner, an employee-benefits consultant, tells of an airline employee who took FMLA time with the understanding that he’d attend his pregnant wife’s delivery. “The next day he flew from Seattle to Atlanta to pick up a car he had left there,” Garner said. “He spent the next few days driving from Atlanta to Seattle, during which time his wife gave birth. He claimed it was legitimate FMLA leave because he called his wife every day to check on her. Ultimately, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that was not a legitimate use of FMLA.”

2. The Pizza Pupil.

Startups see their share of ambitious employees. Brian Selander, executive vice president at The Whistle, however, remembers one that still stands out. “We had an MBA that worked for us, in our last company, who said he managed to turn what was supposed to be a small stipend … into almost an entire college education.” The employee worked for a major pizza chain in the U.S., and the deal was that his company would pay for a class or two at a time. “But he also realized that [one online university] would let you push through entire classes in a matter of weeks, and then immediately start another one,” Selander said. “That meant he could meet the ‘one or two classes at a time’ requirement while still getting reimbursed for a dozen classes a year … He said they’ve since changed the policy… but he was only a class or two away from a full degree by that point.”

3. From Vacation to VP.

Sometimes, it’s not about getting away with something, it’s about getting ahead. “Royce Leather had a unique situation in which one of our employees … used his vacation time to come to work,” said Andrew Bauer, the business’s CEO. “As he was extremely eager to be promoted in the company, he spent two weeks coming into work to learn how to do our vice president of sales’s job. While he is still our customer-service manager, when we do have an opening for our vice president of sales, I have promised him that he will be the first one lined up for the job!”

So, here’s one possible bottom line: just as employers expect their workers to give as much as they can, when it comes to projects and tasks, many also anticipate that employees will occasionally push the envelope on what the workplace can do for them. It’s a fine line between getting the most for your time and going too far.

If you’re going to walk that line, take note of these three tales. And maybe aim to game your benefits in the direction of our next corporate vice president’s example, by putting your creative use of perks to some truly career-advancing work.

Next Steps:  Imagine a world where your employees show up on time, work smart and deliver results for your small business day in and day out. Not there yet? Sign up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter and we’ll send you the best science-backed strategies on managing productive, happy employees—including tips on how to get them to show up on time!

13 Responses to "3 Crazy (and Clever) Ways Employees Have Taken Advantage of Employer Benefits"

    • Chrissy Symanski | June 26, 2018 at 11:20 am

      Very interesting.

    • Franklin Flato | June 26, 2018 at 3:12 pm

      I had recently hired (2 months prior) an assistant who gave her two weeks notice because she found a better position. She took five days vacation within her two weeks notice. I feel a bit taken.

    • Michele | June 26, 2018 at 3:33 pm

      That’s crazy. I just wish employee’s had common sense.

    • George Light | June 27, 2018 at 10:58 am

      The “long distance delivery” points out the reality that whether you call it FMLA, vacation, sick time, personal days, it amounts to employer paid free time and employees will attempt to use it as such. The fact that this employee was refused the time under FMLA via the 9th circuit court of appeals indicates to me anyway, that some sort of dogfight ensued when he returned to work. Kudos to the employer, whoever it was, that they stuck with it.

    • Ray Fluken | June 27, 2018 at 2:11 pm

      Employees are the lifeblood of any small business, and when they are out ‘sick’ it can be a real burden on the remaining staff. Several years ago we decided to do away with paid sick days and replaced them with paid ‘well days’. Basically, we pay an extra week paycheck at the end of the year if an employee didn’t miss a single day that year. Then for every day they miss, they don’t get paid for the day missed AND a well day is also docked. So, as an example, if an employee misses 2 days for that year, they miss 2 days of pay during the year but 3 days are added as a bonus at the end of the year. Sounds complicated but in reality it is quite easy to keep track. It has done wonders for attendance and a moral booster for the staff who have to fill in for person taking time off.

    • Susan Knight | July 4, 2018 at 12:27 am

      Mr. Fluken: That’s an interesting thought about paid “well days”. The issue in my mind then is the legality of that situation when you have a business in a state like California which requires “sick days”. ie..sounds good on paper, but will an employee take you to task for this policy?

    • Leah | April 10, 2019 at 10:25 am

      In response to Mr. Fluken— I wonder, though, if this contributes to employees coming to work legitimately sick? I’ve found allowing my employees to be comfortable asking to take time off because they’re sick, generally leads to honesty and respect; and no sick employees causing the spread of junk.

    • Jolene | April 10, 2019 at 11:44 am

      Great article, but in response to Mr. Fluken. Employees need a break, I have all female staff, who usually have to juggle issues that arise with children ( more than the spouse does). We have a bonus at the end of the year that is 1 week pay for 1 year or less of employment and 2 week for anything over 1 year of employment.
      When I came on board there was a lot of abuse and staff used to taking more than the allotted PTO. We changed the bonus structure, if you go above and beyond your allotted PTO for any reason, you lose up to 50% of that bonus. It is in increments to be fair. For example 1-5 hours over is a 10% reduction.
      We are in year 2 and it has helped a lot. It also has helped that there is no exception to the rule. Yes there have been employees that have had exceptional situations. But I explain you have to do what is needed in your life this year, I’m sorry you have had a rough year, hopefully next year is better.

    • Gwen Stephenson | April 10, 2019 at 5:59 pm

      Employee got paid to be on call for business’ customers and as the business owner, I never expected the employee to be on call past business hours or take phone calls for after-hours or emergency requests. Originally we agreed that if work did not come in between 9 AM and 3 PM, we would make adjustments to the schedule either the day before or if an emergency came up, schedule would be changed the same day. The employee never did more than 6 hours in one day even on those occasional emergency last-minute changes to the schedule. Not much was expected from the employee but we did expect the employee to only promote the company to friends and others who may want to contract our employee for opportunities even if those requests were after-hours. The employee was paid the same amount they were paid with a previous company, as a 1099 Independent Contractor, but with my business they were treated and paid as an Employee. Many days the employee was unable to cover a request due to the years of experience of the Employee. Some of our contracts have a clause that only those with at least 7+ years experience may be utilized in certain instances, regardless of the employee/contractor is a highly-skilled specialist that is able to complete the job. So there was down time on some days. Employee still got paid! even if it meant a loss for the business. Recently I was informed through the grapevine that the employee worked for a competitor as an Independent Contractor after hours and the employee did not mention anything to us that they would be accepting this assignment from one of our competitors. I approached the employee who admitted that they did so. Appreciate the honesty of the Employee but not sure if I should let the Employee go for breach of contract.

      • Hannah Sullivan | April 11, 2019 at 1:42 pm

        Thank you for sharing this story, Gwen.

    • Connie Bentley McGhee | April 10, 2019 at 7:20 pm

      Interesting Email outreach.
      Thank you.

    • Jack | May 13, 2019 at 9:23 pm

      One of the toughest parts of searching for posts on employer policies is 90% of the posts and follow ups take the employers perspective. Take for example sick days why not just work a straight up plan instead of flex with 80 million rules and coming very close to HIPPA violations why not just give three sick days cut two off the week and say any more is YOUR PTO case closed. Sadly these posts and employers try an endless game of gotcha or make assumptions that because a employee got the flu he or she is up to no good.

      Jimmy Johnson Cowboy coach was once asked why one player got breaks and others didn’t he said directly and simply better players get more breaks because their better. In our modern work force all employees are treated the same and modern bosses sit scratching their heads because they moved on. When I first entered the workforce old school employers asked is the job done we said yes he gave us the thumbs up and went home. Today’s bosses read these endless stupid manuals about how they can squeeze even more blood out of the turnip. I can’t even begin to tell you how many operations managers have never ever had a sit down with all their employees yet start up some stupid program on team work like Smartsheet. If you don’t know how to relate to employees your useless as a manager. I find poor functioning offices have an operations or HR manager with poor people skills. Seems odd why would someone who lacks in this area even be an HR manager??????

      • Hannah Sullivan | May 14, 2019 at 9:33 am

        Thank you for reading, Jack.

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