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Let’s Make an I-Deal

Mindbridge Software prides itself on accommodating the needs of its employees. Like many other companies, the maker of intranet software applications has embraced flextime, telecommuting and other worker-friendly policies for its 90 employees. The company really went the extra mile, though, when one of its employees had a baby: Mindbridge outfitted a room in its office so the woman could nurse her infant. Welcome to the world of idiosyncratic deals, or “i-deals,” as Denise Rousseau, author of I-Deals: Idiosyncratic Deals Employees Bargain for Themselves (M.E. Sharpe, 2005) calls them.

At their most basic level, an i-deal is “any employment arrangement with at least some feature(s) differing from that enjoyed by workers doing the same basic job, in particular a feature or feature the employee has bargained for,” says Rousseau, the H.J. Heinz Professor of Organizational Behavior and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. She studied the phenomenon of i-deals extensively for her book, which is nominated for the Terry Award from the Academy of Management.

While much attention has been paid to the special perquisites doled out to high-powered CEOs and other “rock star” types, Rousseau’s research shows that i-deals are far more common than previously thought, with anywhere from 25% to 40% of employees in an organization enjoying some kind of special arrangement. “Most common i-deals deal with job content such as tasks or clients and competencies such as development,” says Rousseau. “Almost half of the i-deals I have come across are of these two forms.”

Despite a common misperception that i-deals are unethical or unfair, they are in fact perfectly valid—provided that they’re executed correctly. “There is a puritanical side to these reactions as well as a well-grounded fear that what might be OK in theory can work out really badly in practice,” says Rousseau. “This is a real problem, since many managers, workers and companies are clueless about how to really tap the potential advantages of i-deals while protecting themselves from the downside risks.”

Those potential advantages can play an important part in helping companies attract and retain talent, according to Rousseau. “Pay is not enough to motivate the kinds of behaviors, including retention and contribution, companies seek,” she says. “We are increasingly as Americans open to the ideas that there should be opportunity to customize things, to match personal needs with suitable conditions of work, service and incentives.”

At Mindbridge, the unique deal that the company struck with its employee came about after much discussion. A work-from-home arrangement was not a viable solution, as the employee was needed at the office, so the company offered to set up a room where she could nurse her baby in privacy.

“There’re companies in our industry that don’t accommodate employees, and that may be the difference in retaining talent and losing it,” says Scott Testa, chief operating officer for the Norristown, PA–based company. “It’s part of our culture. We’re a fast-growing company, and one of the reasons why is we’ve been pretty accommodating.”

To be successful, an i-deal must take into consideration all of the parties involved, including co-workers. “First and foremost, the negative reactions to i-deals are a product of social comparison,” says Rousseau. “If my job title and duties are different from yours, any other differences that exist between us are a lot less salient in contrast to situations where titles and duties are the same but I still get something you don’t. An overall feeling that people are fairly treated reduces people’s vigilance, in contrast to situations where people believe the company exploits them so any difference can smack of favoritism or corruption.

One of the biggest mistakes employers can make when it comes to i-deals is to keep the special arrangements a secret. “When no conversation ensues with co-workers regarding the existence, purpose, and implications of an i-deal,” says Rousseau, “the silence screams ‘you would be ticked off if you knew what deal I just made.'”

In addition to defusing any accusations of favoritism or underhandedness, talking openly about the nature of i-deals lets other employees know that they’re part of an organization that will try to meet their working needs. “There are two positions employees fall in with respect to i-deals,” says Rousseau. “The bargainer attains some benefit from employment that he or she especially values and might not otherwise be able to get, while their co-workers see that the firm is able to respond with appropriate flexibility to specific needs of workers, and that it has a broad array of rewards it can customize for employees able and willing to bargain for them.”

Done correctly, i-deals can result in a win-win situation for the employer and the employees. “At the end of the day, it’s like any valuable employee,” says Testa of Mindbridge. “You try to do things to keep them happy and productive.”