BURLINGTON, Mass. Software engineer Tim Philman acquired a reputation as an office “loner” during the decade he spent at Infomatrixtech writing code for its popular left-handed spreadsheet program. “I think human relations are overrated,” he said in an interview that was “spiked” before it appeared in the company newsletter. “And no,” he told the in-house marketing assistant who was writing the article, “I don’t want to hear about your kids.”
But then his employer merged into its larger West coast rival Intektron to form Infomatektrixtronics, resulting in a combined company with more than double its previous market share. “Sometimes big is bad,” says V.P. of Human Resources Linda Orthen-Bean, “but having a stronger balance sheet means better compensation and benefits.”
One upgrade that employees now enjoy is an enhanced bereavement benefit. The company offers a dollar-for-dollar match of contributions that employees make to help colleagues through difficult times before they can find out what’s in their parents’ safe deposit boxes and unfreeze assets held in joint name with a deceased spouse. “A lot of people don’t realize that when a loved one dies, the impact isn’t just emotional,” says Orthen-Bean. “You may have trouble draining the checking account that your deadbeat husband’s been using for years to buy tacky jewelry for his mistress.”
It was this program that finally caused the unmarried Philman to take notice of the feelings of those around him. “I wouldn’t spend a nickel on chocolate bars for your daughter’s U-12 soccer team to go to Disney World,” he says with an uncharacteristic display of sympathy, “but if the company’s going to let me free ride on their fifty cents when somebody dies, I guess I might feel differently.”
And so Philman and a few others like him–sharp-eyed finance people, office supply clerks who supplemented their meager income by selling stolen Post-It Notes–began to respond for the first time to firm-wide emails soliciting contributions, and the unexpected thawing of stand-offish personalities caused a warming trend to move in where a chillier office climate had previously prevailed.
“Tim’s really not a bad guy once you get to know him a bit,” says Orthen-Bean, who has signed off on more than one review in his personnel file complaining that he’s not a “team player.” “He’s a totally different person now, it’s very gratifying,” she says.
So changed is the self-described video game “junkie” that today is his turn to open up to others and receive condolences on the loss of his father. “Thanks so much, really appreciate it,” he says to Meredith Bialostick, a VP of Marketing who stops by the employee lounge to put $10 in the “kitty,” to be matched by the company under its new policy.
“I know how hard it is to lose a parent,” Bialostick says, although she doesn’t since both of hers are still alive.
“It’s tough,” Philman says, “but at least he’s at peace now.”
“When is the funeral?” Bialostick asks, her face contorted by conflicting desires to express her condolences and to get an early start on the weekend.
“Let’s see,” Philman says, scratching his chin and looking off into the distance. “I guess it was 2015, right before the merger.”