Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid explores French perks

There was a time when I loved travelling on business. It seemed exciting and glamorous then. Thinking of an international flight meant attractive flight attendants handing out trays of food with several tiny, but tasty, courses. There would even be a little roll and a chunk of cheese to finish things off. We’d be given a glass topped up with something sparkling and a glossy magazine to fill the time. Above all, there was the thrill of visiting somewhere new at the end of it.

Now, at least on my ‘favourite’ airline, we have to endure old ladies in polyester suits throwing miniature inedible buns at us from across the cabin with the carelessness of a toddler putting their toys away. Even arriving in Paris no longer seems exotic; I’ve been so often for work it has the tired familiarity of my local supermarket.

New acquisition

Still, this time I am going to a different office somewhere in the depths of the French countryside. This new company has been bought out in the latest series of pointless acquisitions driven by the Higher Beings (our executive management team) under their inane dictate to double in size within three years. There has been little attention to the profitability of these companies, so at some point in the future I feel sure I will be helping prepare the due diligence data to sell them all off again. For now, I am off to see what our new colleagues have in the way of benefits.

A chic young woman greets me on reception and introduces herself as Charlotte. She decides I need a coffee to revive me from my journey before I get started. Perhaps this trip won’t be so bad after all. But things all change when Charlotte takes me to see Madame Duvant. I am not given her first name but I am told Madame D is all things HR. She looks like it too. She has that je ne sais quoi, a certain unnerving superiority that says she has seen your psychological profile and she doesn’t like what she’s seen. When I explain my mission, she waves a manicured hand at a set of files and leaves me to it. Thanks.

Insurance policies

I don’t know much French, and although I’ve been around long enough to know my interessment from my système de primes, I don’t know enough to dive into the full nitty-gritty of insurance policies in another language. Not that I’ve been given the insurance policies. The majority of the files are payroll reports merely showing headcount and social security deductions. There is a file for a corporate savings plan set up for the few executives and another for a plan that might be something to do with early retirement but really it could be almost anything given my ability to translate.

Madame D is not big on explanations, so I just take a photocopy and hope I can work it out at home. The savings plan isn’t a big deal as we have similar plans elsewhere in France. I suppose I’m really I’m looking for any high-cost anomalies that will create a stir in head office.

Involving the workers council

Madame D seems quite suspicious of me and I do get that. Small companies should be very suspicious of new corporate owners. Typically, we go in and start messing about with everything. That said, given French law and a workers council, such meddling will be fairly limited here.

She says I must speak to the workers council about anything to do with insurance. Really? That seems very odd. Furthermore, the workers council can’t see me until next week and by then I will already be back in England. I have a feeling this is deliberate obscuration. No matter, I have gleaned almost enough information to keep Big Bad Boss quiet for a bit, and I will find a way to get the rest.

Pressing Madame D for more on the insurance policies only results in her announcing it is lunchtime. Everyone moves into a large meeting room where salads have been mysteriously delivered. No one asks me what I want, and I am handed a plastic box. Madame D and the other department heads appear to be lunching in another room. They probably have proper meals and maybe even wine. Shoved in with the workers. Huff. I feel sure Big Bad Boss would have been treated more hospitably than this. Still, the ham salad is far superior to any takeaway at home.

I spend some time with Charlotte, who turns out to be the administrator for HR, finance, IT and procurement departments, as well as the receptionist. It is quite a small company, but still this seems a very wide remit. It is a wonder she is still fresh-faced and smiling, especially as no one else is around here. Her immaculate English puts my schoolgirl French to shame, and she refuses to let me practice. Perhaps my accent is too inelegant and grating. Charlotte doesn’t have the actual policies but she gives me the names of all the relevant insurers and the policy numbers, and because they are providers where we have group contacts I know I can get all the data I need by stealth. Result.

Switching off

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I find the whole place has an intensely serious and frantically busy atmosphere; apart from Charlotte, everyone has been rushing around all day frowning and arguing irritably with each other. And yet, the entire company seems to switch off promptly at 4pm. Even Madame D has cleared her desk and gone within 10 minutes. I wonder what I will do with the rest of my day. Charlotte kindly gives me directions to the local mall, telling me it is open for another hour. Thanks to her, I won’t go home empty-handed.

Next time…Candid gets creativity training.