Most people innately have a bias towards helping others in need. The action of helping others brings with it so much value, and when channeled appropriately, can create a lasting, positive impact on a company's culture. So how formalized should your company's employee-assistance programs be?

A few years ago, Farmers Insurance created an employee-driven initiative to assist colleagues in need, which has now provided grants exceeding $1 million. Here, Deb Aldredge, chief administrative officer for Farmers, talks about the origins of the Farmers Family Fund and offers her advice for employers who might want to consider setting up a similar program.

Q. What is the Farmers Family Fund?

A. Before the fund was established, it was typical that a department would learn about an employee in need and pass the hat, collecting a few hundred dollars to help with a funeral or a sick child. That inspired a group of employees to take it a step further and start an employee assistance program that was funded by employees to help other employees struggling financially with things like unforeseen medical bills, natural disasters, accidents or a family member's death.

After months of research, working with legal counsel and filing paperwork with the IRS, the Farmers Family Fund, which is recognized as a 501(c)(3) employee assistance program, was born. Farmers seeded it with approximately $50,000, and thanks to the generosity of thousands of employees, the fund has grown substantially. In fact, just recently we surpassed the $1 million mark in grants issued to employees.

What started as, essentially, a "pilot" has now become a key part of the Farmers culture-- something employees and recruiters point to with a sense of pride. And it's something other companies can easily replicate and make their own.

Q. Would you recommend that other companies set up similar funds?

A.  It's important for businesses to do something that fits their culture. What's great about the Farmers Family Fund is that it aligns perfectly with our values. As an insurance company, we pride ourselves on being there for people, including our own employees, when any type of disaster strikes. Not only did the fund develop and evolve organically, with the concept coming from our own employees, it also naturally builds on who we are and what we do as an enterprise.

Other companies, especially smaller businesses, might find that a fund isn't the right solution for them. But there are other ways to signal that you care about employees--that you're there to support them. Matching employee donations or allotting volunteer days are strong initial steps that any organization can take. Then, take a look at who you are as a company--what you and your employees value--and build from there.

Q. What were some of the challenges you encountered when setting up the fund?

A. When we started this fund, no one realized how big and how quickly it would grow. We've worked with our legal, finance and tax teams to set up an infrastructure that we can now scale to meet our fluctuating needs. Before we got too far ahead of ourselves, we took the time necessary to define the scope of the fund. The fund is only for true hardships, and governed by a grant committee that uses strict criteria to review all requests. We also made sure we had protocols in place to ensure the anonymity of all employees who request funds. Having these strong guidelines in place isn't just the right thing to do, it helps assure that employees with true need are not hesitant about coming to the fund for assistance.

As a result, those seeking help and those employees making the grant decisions, have taken a very professional approach in managing the fund. The rules we've put in place have helped legitimize the process, and we've seen a higher rate of donations as a result. Employees aren't worried their hardships will become office gossip. And, no one has tried to take advantage of the fund.

Q. What effect has the fund had on your company culture?

A. We share stories--with identifying details removed--about the fund's work. Doing this has helped all of us realize that our colleagues may be dealing with some very difficult issues and hardships at home. In addition, employees across the country have taken to heart that they can, individually and collectively, be of great help to their colleagues.  Knowing that they have a place to go for help in a time of crisis, is one of the most important--and unexpected--benefits of the fund to date: We've become a more sensitive organization, and our employees appreciate that.