Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid searches for benefits data


Nothing ever stays the same for long. My organisation lurches from a contraction phase – selling off defunct companies and shutting down offices, straight into a growth phase – buying up competitors and hiring directors to head up new teams. I wouldn’t have thought it was the right time economically, but the Higher Beings have decided it is now the moment to expand. They’ve bought out a competitor with multiple locations in Eastern Europe. This new subsidiary covers the global map East of Germany all the way to China. There are even offices in all those unpronounceable countries ending in ‘-stan’ and a few others besides. I can feel a lot of disproportionate effort coming on.

Sure enough, Big Bad Boss wants a benefits inventory and benchmarking exercise for all the new countries. I look at the list; some of the offices have only one employee there. He waves an airy hand. I need to get the lot done, and in time for the next management meeting. Thanks.

The use of platforms

Once I would have reached out to the local offices with a simple spreadsheet to complete, but now we have The Platform. In case you hadn’t noticed, ‘platforms’ are taking over the world. We have platforms for performance management, platforms with our insurers, and a platform to manage our pension. Even our own product, formally thought of as software, is now referred to as a platform. Last year, it was enough just to say our product was ‘cloud-based’, even though that’s just a way of saying we can charge subscriptions year after year in place of a one-off purchase. Now, it seems, platforms are the thing.

Smarmy Consulting sold us their benefits platform on the basis it would help us to administer our benefit plans globally. Yeah right. All it really does for me is create a massive data collection exercise every five minutes. In theory, the local office fills in the data, but in practice someone has to stand over them until they do. That someone is me.

These new offices in Eastern Europe offer very little in the way of benefits to their staff. In less developed markets, I find people want their money in their pocket where they can spend it, not locked up in some benefits plan. Nevertheless I’m asked to analyse the local market to be sure what little we do offer is in line. Equally expectedly, Smarmy’s ‘comprehensive’ benchmarking data is patchy in that region. What data they have for those countries is held in a pdf guide rather than on the platform itself. In other words, I have to go rummaging for it. When I do find the information, it is not that great. Worse, Big Bad Boss insists on two sources for each new country; he might as well ask me to find a unicorn and a gryphon at the same time.

Luckily, we work with more than one consulting firm, so I call my contact Harry at Hugely Expensive Consulting to see what data they have. We haven’t been using them lately so Harry is very pleased to hear from me. He tells me my best option would be to buy their Hugely Expensive Platform, which, he says, will tell me the prevalent benefits in any country around the world. I imagine a kind of Siri sitting on my desk. When Big Bad Boss comes over with one of his ‘quick’ questions, the Hugely Expensive Platform could answer him directly. Nice idea, but we already have a platform, several, in fact. Couldn’t they just give me a simple data sheet on each country? Of course they can. Minutes later, Harry is back with a link to their global benefits report options and a quote for 20 countries. It is an eye-watering quote based on ridiculous price per country with only a tiny discount. With a handful of employees in many of the countries, that makes so sense at all. Sigh.

Fee versus free

Normally, I would also talk to my reward network, but really there are so many unusual countries, I don’t think I’ll get useful data that way and I’m running out of time. I consult Google to see if I can find any free data. Many insurers used to publish helpful country guides, but all they seem to have taken that data off the web, probably realising this is chargeable data. In the end, I reach out to one of our larger insurers. Amazingly, they are able to help. They still have the handy country guides; they just don’t publish them, but they will hand them out for free to special clients. The reports only cover data on insured benefits, but as that covers the majority of benefits in those places anyway, I think it’ll do.

Now, I just need a second source. I reach out again to the new local offices. Can they tell me what is typical in their country? Yes, of course. It is exactly what they are providing. I add an extra column labelled ‘local market data’ and fill it with data from the existing plan column. Yes, I know that is a dubious source at best, but the Higher Beings will never know. Sometimes, it pays to be pragmatic; I am saving the organisation thousands.

All this hunting around has prevented me from doing any of my other projects, so I am glad to ping the report over to Big Bad Boss and forget all about it. Only three months later, the Highest Being on the executive management team announces we are doubling our resources in Asia and scaling back in Eastern Europe. What a surprise. Fifteen smaller offices will be closed and there will be redundancies in the remaining countries. So, my most of the newly collected benefits data will be redundant. Good job I didn’t pay for it.

Next time… Candid helps with performance management.