What’s Working: 8 unique employee benefits programs

1. Expectant and new moms get help from co-worker "buddies"

At Michigan-based accounting firm Plante & Moran, HR pairs expectant moms with those who’ve recently had babies so they can ask questions and get support. Buddies meet on company time, go out for lunches and participate in relationship-building exercises. Buddies also help new moms make a successful transition back to work.

Most of the moms take four to six months off after a birth. The company allows anyone who is eligible for FMLA leave to take up to six months’ parental leave. Employees tap their paid leave before dipping into their short-term disability insurance.

2. Shopping-spree contest helps boost sales, morale

Every few months, employees of Fun Bike Center MotorSports in Lakeland, Fla., gather at a local grocery store before it opens to watch three to five of their lucky colleagues scramble to fill their carts with as much food as possible in a set amount of time. One recent participant snagged $1,000 worth of groceries in five minutes.

Employees qualify for the shopping spree and other perks by meeting sales goals and impressing mystery shoppers. The company also hosts scavenger hunts, Jet Ski outings and fishing trips with managers and their teams. Result: low turnover and steady sales during the recession.

3. Cash advances help workers dress for success

Umpqua Bank makes it easy for its 1,700 employees to comply with a strict, professional dress code: It lends them money to buy clothes.

Since 1996, the bank, with 150 branches in Washington, Oregon and California, has advanced money to any employee who asks for it—up to $1,000 a year—to spend on work clothes. Managers check receipts and sign off on advances, which employees repay through payroll deductions. Employees can choose how big their payments are, as long as they pay each advance off within a year.

4. Employee committees choose company wellness programs

At PCL Construction in Denver, employees decide which wellness programs the organization will offer. Employee-run wellness committees at each corporate location focus on physical, financial and community wellness, as well as team building.

Every three years, the company conducts a survey to learn what employees want. One result is the firm’s focus on community service. The firm encourages employees to volunteer 35 work hours a year for community projects.

5. Company pays employees to leave their cars at home

When execs at Portland, Ore.-based David Evans and Associates wanted to make their organization more sustainable, they started with their employees’ commutes. The design firm pays its 953 employees up to $6 a day to commute by walking, biking, car pooling or riding the bus.

The firm relies on an honor system for employees to claim their bonuses. A guaranteed-ride-home program gets participating employees into cabs in cases of personal emergencies.

6. Deployed workers get full pay, benefits and care packages

The seven Shared Technologies employees who are serving in the military in Iraq or elsewhere get a monthly reminder that they’re still members of the team at the Texas company.

The 1,400-employee organization sends a monthly care package containing donated canned food, CDs, DVDs, underwear, socks and other goodies to each deployed employee. And they send packages to the employees’ families. In addition, the tech firm pays deployed workers their full salaries and continues their medical coverage.

7. Medical firm picks reality TV star as its "wellness ambassador"

Bill Germanakos was a sales rep at Quest Diagnostics when he lost 164 pounds in winning the 2007 version of NBC’s “Biggest Loser” reality TV show. Now he serves as Quest’s “wellness ambassador.” He oversees the company’s HealthyQuest program, which helps the firm’s 41,000 employees change unhealthy behaviors.

The upshot: About 3,600 employees have quit smoking and more than 5,500 have taken a cancer screening test.

8. From across the pond: British firm pays for "Botox leave"

So many employees of Fox Kalomaski were taking leave for “beauty treatments” that the London-based ad agency added an extra paid day off. Execs call it “Botox leave.”

“We have heard rumors that this is what people do with this day,” says managing director Stephen Fox. Most get haircuts or facials instead—it’s up to each employee. The day off occurs in December, says Fox, who speculates employees need time to “make sure they’re looking their best for the Christmas party photos.”

Wellness benefits: Who’s offering what?

Percentage of employers offering each benefit in 2009, according to Society for Human Resource Management’s annual Benefits Survey.

Wellness programs    59%
Smoking cessation program    39%
Health screenings    38%
Fitness center subsidy/reimbursement     35%
Weight-loss programs    30%
Nutritional counseling    19%
On-site fitness classes    12%
Health care premium discount for getting annual health risk assessment    10%