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Benefits survey shakes up Ford staff

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

Tough choices?

Ford presented employees with a list of paired benefits and asked them to pick the one they valued most. Over the course of the questionnaire, each benefit was counterposed with every other benefit, so that the company was able to determine which ones are most important to workers.
The following are a sampling of the pairings Ford employees were asked to choose between:

Pension plan OR retiree health care plan
Developmental assignments (e.g. job rotations, special projects) OR training opportunities (e.g. leadership and professional, technical)
Vacation plan OR disability plan
Company lease car program OR work life balance programs (e.g. transitional work arrangements, telecommuting, alternative work schedule)
International service assignments OR promotional opportunities
Bonus plan (e.g. performance bonus plan, incentive compensation plan) OR company match for the Savings and Stock Investment Plan (SSIP)
Source: Ford Motor Co. survey

What would you rather have, a pension plan or retiree health care?

If you had to choose, would you pick dental or disability insurance?

What's better, a higher base salary or a performance bonus?

These are the types of questions Ford Motor Co. asked many of its salaried employees in an online survey late this week.

The survey, a copy of which was obtained by The Detroit News, sparked fresh anxiety among some employees because it came a week after the automaker posted a $123 million second-quarter loss and said it planned more cost-cutting measures.

Ford is trying to speed up its turnaround plan in North America and has said everything is on the table, including employee benefits.

The survey, which takes 15 to 30 minutes to complete, asks workers a series of either-or questions designed to find out which benefits and working conditions they most value. "Management does not want to make decisions in a vacuum," said Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans.

"The company wanted there to be employee involvement."

Workers participating in the survey received an e-mail from Ford's global vice president in charge of human resources, Joe Laymon.

"Your participation in this survey will provide senior company management with valuable information as we prepare to make decisions about how to prioritize the many employee plans, programs, and attributes of the work environment to ensure that we focus our time, attention and resources on those that offer the most value to you," Laymon wrote.

While Ford has conducted other surveys to assess employee sentiment on a variety of issues, Evans said this is the first time the company has surveyed workers on their benefits in recent memory.

She also said all of the benefits listed on the survey are ones that are currently available to Ford's salaried work force.

White-collar workers said the questions were causing concern throughout the automaker's Dearborn headquarters.

One employee who participated in the survey said it sent "ripples of surprise and some fear through the building."

Another said: "The speculation is management is using this to make decisions about salaried benefit cuts or gauging which cuts would cause the most outcry."

Both employees spoke on the condition that they would not be identified by name.

Benefits expert John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. in Chicago said workers at Ford are right to be concerned about their benefits.

"If it wasn't planning future actions, it wouldn't be asking now," Challenger said of Ford.

However, he said, Ford is taking the right approach in surveying its employees to find out what benefits they value most so that it can focus its austerity push on those benefits that are less likely to damage morale.

"You're kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't. You want to understand what people think, and you don't want to make assumptions," he said.

"But in this environment, every action is scrutinized. It raises fears."

Ford has already cut many of the benefits its white-collar workers traditionally enjoyed.

Last summer, the company suspended matching contributions to 401(k) retirement plans and froze management bonuses.

In December, the automaker capped health care and life insurance benefits for retired salaried employees and eliminated a program that provided a vehicle allowance to the survivors of mid- to high-level management retirees after they died.

The company has also limited merit pay increases for white-collar workers.

Benefits are not the only things being cut.

Last year, Ford eliminated some 3,000 white-collar positions in North America -- first through voluntary buyouts, then through layoffs.

Another 4,000 salaried jobs were cut as part of the restructuring plan Ford announced in January.
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