Confessions of a benefits manager: It’s all Greek to me

Big Bad Boss just called me into his office and closed the door. My heart gives a quick impression of palpitations.

I am not normally this jumpy, but last month we completed the annual cull process, and have ‘let go’ a number of departmental managers. Letting someone go is an interesting expression to use, when the poor sods clearly didn’t ask to go anywhere.

Still, HR was asked to slash the payroll budget, and slash it we did. Since then, it seems the Higher Beings have tasted blood and, seeing the impact on the bonus results, they want to see more savings. Big Bad Boss lowers his voice and looks shifty. Oh god, it really is me for the chop this time.

”It’s about Greece,” he says. ”Greece?” I am confused by this sudden shift from what I was expecting.

Apparently, some idiotic company wants to buy our Greek operation. I say idiotic, because that business hasn’t made any money since the day it was opened. As far as I can see, we only maintain it so the Higher Beings can have a jolly in Athens from time to time. However, I have come to learn that companies move in mysterious ways, and it is not for me to question the word from above.           

My task is this: Big Bad Boss wants me to get hold of the HR data required for the due diligence data room without the Greek managers finding out what is going on. It is like asking me to capture the Golden Fleece without coming to grief.

I can see the logic in using me; I am always going out asking for bits of data for market studies, so they think I can do this now without raising anyone’s suspicion. Personally, I have my doubts.

Data collection

All our surveys have data collection in the spring and summer, so, for a start, I need to invent a new winter version. I create a little template based on one used by Smarmy Consulting for its annual survey. Now, sharp intake of breath, I just need to phone the Greek office. I have learned from bitter experience that there is no point just sending stuff out to some offices. No, if I do that, my email will moulder away in some over-full inbox, never even to be opened. If I want a response from certain southern European countries, I need to talk to them first.

This is where I am nervous. It is not that I am bad at lying; arguably, I have made a career out of just that. It is just that I know everyone is still jumpy after the latest cull, and the local offices are rightly suspicious of anyone working at the European head office at the best of times.

I set up a call with Elena, the local HR manager. I say manager, but as it is a small office, she is a sort of Jill-of-all-trades. Elena does payroll, HR, health and safety, communications, and she is the local managing director’s secretary. As far as I know, she also buys the milk. I briefly explain the new survey and what information I need. She seems comfortable that she can give me everything I need. Phew. I put the phone down, relieved.

Within 10 minutes, the phone rings and it is Elena’s manager, George, the MD. He wants to know why I want all this information. I explain the fictional new survey. George is not taken in. We know there are many people interested in our office, he says. I can hear the inhalation as he smokes a cigarette. He wants to know who is involved. I feel like I am speaking with some gangland boss. I repeat my story. George exhales. He says we can refer to it as a winter survey if I like, but he still wants to know who is behind it. Gulp.

Reviewing contracts

Luckily, George knows better than to kick up a fuss, and Elena duly fills in the spreadsheet. I post it in a virtual data room set up for the project. Next, I have to participate in a call with the buyers. I still feel like I am in a gangster movie. I am not given the company name, or even any surnames. I speak to Toni and Claude, who are clearly from New York. They grill me on the Greek data. What are the notice periods? What are the severance terms? I have no idea, and I am not looking forward to asking.

I sit at my desk, mulling it over. I can’t ask for that kind of thing without blowing my cover. I phone Elena again. I have another project I am working on. I tell her we are collecting all the contracts across Europe so we can do a legal review on the wording on benefits. Elena is unfazed by this, and I just pray she doesn’t tell George.

The phone rings. I hear George pull on another cigarette. He asks me, very slowly and deliberately, who wants to review the contracts in Greece. The legal department, I tell him, faltering only slightly. Actually this is true, as they are co-ordinating the due-diligence process. Who else? I don’t know, I tell him honestly.

Elena, bless her, sends over a scan containing the contracts of all the staff. It is literally all Greek to me, but I can make out the names, and I can count. There are 35 permanent staff in the Athens office, and only 34 contracts. I call her. Yes, one of the contracts is missing from the files, she tells me. It was signed a long time ago, and they have lost the HR copy.

You can guess which one that is. George is no fool.

Next time…Candid gets organised.