Confessions of a benefits manager: Briefing encounter

Candid signs up to attend a breakfast briefing, but is alarmed by a lack of bacon sandwiches and some unpleasant company.

Whoever invented breakfast briefings wants shooting. It’s not that I have anything against breakfast. Far from it; there is nothing to beat a nice bacon sarnie or a mini almond croissant to get the day off to a good start. No, it is the briefing bit that can get a bit tedious.

When legal advisers like Robbem and Fleece suggest such meetings, I usually say I am far too busy. But I am not sure what came over me this time. Perhaps it was the thought of a morning away from Big Bad Boss and Lazy Susan, or perhaps it was the memory of that nice shoe shop across the road from the advisers’ office. Whatever it was, I signed up for a briefing, and now I really wish I hadn’t.

Having got up at some ridiculous hour to make an extra few miles across town to their offices by 7.30am, I feel like death warmed up. 7.30am! I don’t even want to know about employer-justified retirement age or whatever it is they want to tell me about at this time in the morning. Right now, I just want my bed.

Still, as I am here, I might as well take this opportunity to eat. I strike up a conversation with a guy ahead of me in the queue for coffee. Actually, he looks quite cute. He pours me a tea and I think we are off to quite a good start. We cast around for the promised breakfast. Where are the bacon sandwiches? All there is on offer is a plate of some rather stale-looking biscuits. Ugh. Times must be getting hard.

Without any further ado, we are shuffled into a conference room, and I lose contact with my handsome friend. Instead, I am stuffed between a dusty-looking older guy and a rather fat woman. I knew this was a mistake. Old Codger is retired but keen to keep up to date with current changes. I can’t help wanting to say: why bother? When I retire, I will think about HR about as much as I consider the dust under the telly.

Why doesn’t he just go home and watch Antiques Roadshow like any other pensioner? Fatty is a freelance employment law specialist. Hearing that I am in industry, and therefore her chosen prey, she starts to stalk me. She shmoozles me with compliments and tries to tease out information about my company. Ugh. It is like being slimed by some hideous (and rather large) alien.

Justification of retirement age

She tells me she has a special approach to employer justification of retirement age, and she would be very happy to put together a proposal designed especially for my company. It is so tempting to ask, if she is such an expert, what she is doing at the talk in the first place? Old Codger is also keen to chat, and he seems to keep brushing his knee against mine. I must be imagining it, though; he must be at least 100 years old.

On the break, I look around for my handsome friend, but he must have slipped out to make a call or something. I am immediately set upon by the fat woman and the Old Codger once more. My contact at Robbem and Fleece also moves into view. He asks the predictable question: what projects am I working on at the moment? In other words, what advice could he charge me an extortionate fee for? I keep quiet about auto-enrolment and my other big tasks. To let anything slip would be asking for trouble. I already have enough advisers to run Parliament.

People who come to these events fall into three categories: networkers, freelancers and freeloaders. Professional networkers are usually looking for a job, for contacts who will help them in their job, or just simply to swell their LinkedIn profile. They are the ones eschewing the stale biscuits and mingling frantically. Nearly as bad are the freelancers. They come along to get business. They have similar habits to networkers, but are hungry and eat the biscuits anyway. Then there are the freeloaders. They come along in the hope of free advice and a bacon sarnie, and to enjoy a low-stress day out of the office. It doesn’t take much to work out which one I am, does it?

These briefings always go the same way. An adviser presents you with a knotty legal problem, such as how to maintain a reasonable retirement age when legislation is designed to keep everyone working until they are 100. The advisers then frighten you with horror stories of employers that got it wrong and had to pay court costs, penalties and other scary things. They then hint, oh so subtly, at the simple and elegant solutions they can offer to prevent any such thing happening to your company, without giving any clues as to what these are. Then they give you a business card and send you home with no more knowledge than you walked in with.

And that is exactly what happens this time. I find myself in reception with a brochure and no actual memory of the talk. I am just about to head across the road to the shoe shop when the handsome man taps me on the shoulder. He hands me a card. My heart sinks. He must be another freelancer or unemployed job seeker. But no, he is benefits director for a household name. Perhaps we can share notes sometime, he suggests.

My notes are the same as his. If I had any, that is.

Next time… Candid looks after some expatriates.