Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid is sent on secondment


I am being sent on secondment to another of our offices. Is it to the Caribbean, or some other sunny location where they need me? No, it is Swindon. You may already know my thoughts on Swindon. It is like being sent to Coventry, only worse. I don’t even know what I am to do when I get there. It is something super secret, which can only be an acquisition, though why anyone would want to buy anything in Swindon, I can’t imagine.

The problem is it is a busy time for me here. I’m in the middle of a benefits tender process and there are all sorts of things going on with the old pension plan, not to mention day-to-day benefits administration. Big Bad Boss suggests I hand things over to my colleague Lazy Susan while I am away. Seriously? I remind him what happened when she was left in charge of benefit renewals. All I really want is to avoid going to Swindon altogether, but Big Bad Boss will not be swayed. He offers to pay for an interim to do my job while I am away on the secondment, but I am still not happy.

The handover

The temp arrives on Monday and she is one of those people you take an instant dislike to. I can’t decide exactly why, maybe it is the fact she doesn’t look me in the eye or make any effort to smile. She is just, well, lumpen. She reminds me of a potato with a face drawn on badly. A tough, sullen face.

I have two days to get Mrs Potato Head up to speed. I start with a simple spreadsheet used to report benefits spending to the Higher Beings. I show her where we keep it and explain the reporting schedule. I show her how I download the data from our benefits database and what changes need to be made. She asks me why we don’t just use the standard reporting from the database. Because the Higher Beings want it another way, I say through gritted teeth. We haven’t asked her here to revamp the process, we’ve asked her to keep it ticking over while I am away. Well, she says, it would be much more efficient to use standard reports; perhaps I should have got the reports customised in the first place. The awful thing she is right – it’s one of those things I never got round to – but still, that doesn’t make it okay to say so. Grr.

Details and processes

Mrs Potato Head then asks me about the download process and the schedule. Given I’ve just been through all that, she clearly isn’t listening. I continue to go over the detail on the spreadsheet as patiently as I can, but I am quite soon ready to mash her. She asks a question about every single cell, either to challenge the format, or to clarify quite obvious definitions. Yes, there are some company specific abbreviations, but the meaning is clear from the context. She even asks me if JAN stands for January. Given it was in a column headed MON and was followed by FEB and MAR, I think even my cat could have worked that one out. After two hours, we have finally covered one spreadsheet and it wasn’t even a particularly complex one. I can’t work out if she is very stupid or just has some sort of social learning difficulty.

I decide to tackle her before beginning the next topic. We don’t have much time, so you are going to have to trust me to tell you what you need to know, I say. But it makes no difference; the Potato continues to challenge everything I say. Not to check understanding, but to imply that the job could be done better. Well, maybe that’s true, but I already have Big Bad Boss and the Higher Beings knocking my self-esteem on a daily basis, I don’t need the temp to join in. And the worst of it is that she is so busy fault-finding, I don’t think she is taking in what she needs to know in order to get things done while I am on the secondment.

A questionable approach

On day two of the handover this is proved. Mrs Potato Head asks if she can ask a question. She proceeds to ask 20, all of which are things we went through in detail yesterday and I have even given her in writing as handover notes. I know I ask a lot of questions she says, smiling for the first time, but it is better than not asking. Is it? Try listening, honey.

By the end of the day two, I can’t wait to escape to Swindon. The only cheering thought is that Big Bad Boss and Lazy Susan will be stuck with her when I’m gone. It might be that she’ll be more diplomatic with everyone else, but somehow I don’t think so. Sure enough, it is only my second day away when Lazy Susan rings me in tears. Mrs Potato Head criticised her for getting in late and for having a long lunch break. She’s also upset one of the organisation development team, which takes some doing; those ladies have skin of steel. Even Big Bad Boss now refuses to talk to her and just runs upstairs if she comes near.

The questions haven’t stopped for me. Every day, I get a list on email. I’m about ready to suggest that she just sends me the files, and I’ll go ahead do the job from here, while she just gets paid. Frankly, it would be easier than having to continually explain everything. And I wouldn’t have to feel so judged.

I am beginning to despair when a miracle happens. The Swindon project is called to a sudden and mysterious end, my secondment ends and I am released back to London. Mrs Potato Head has had her chips.

Next time… Candid considers financial wellbeing.