Confessions of a benefits manager

Blogs confessions imageCandid: India is the place to be in business. Like supermodels sporting the latest handbag, every company has to have a call centre there. Not wishing to be left out in the rush to exploit low-cost labour, my company has bought a call centre in Bangalore. Just like that: prêt-a-porter. The problem for me is that the geographically-challenged (American) powers-that-be have decided that India is part of Europe, which makes it part of my remit. All of a sudden, this whole India thing is rather worrying.

I have to go there for a start. Some people get all excited about business trips, but I am not one of them. Airports, now, are so focussed on terrorism, they are becoming like terrorist organisations themselves. Where else can someone demand that you take off most of your clothing and shoes while armed guards stand about threateningly in case you refuse? Where else can someone whisk away your personal belongings and rummage through them looking for evidence of malice to the state? These days, international travel is terrifying.

I get to Bangalore and am greeted by the local HR manager, S. Actually, S is short for Sathyanarayana but as Westerners can’t pronounce more than three syllables, he has decided to become S now that he works for an American firm. A very company-spirited man this S; I wouldn’t change my name just because my boss couldn’t say it.

In his office, S takes me through a list of employees. Embarrassingly, I end up abbreviating many of the names myself, as I just can’t get my tongue around their long names. I wonder how it is that other cultures can manage to do this so easily. Is it something learnt at your mother’s knee? Rather than starting off with ‘mama’ and ‘dada’, do Indian babies gurgle the local equivalent of ‘dearest-mother-loved-one’?

I have to ask S about their benefits. I don’t really want to, but it is expected of me in this job. When he gets out a set of five lever-arch files, I know I am going to regret asking. Their plans are so complicated they make our HM Revenue and Customs’ simplification rules look like noughts and crosses. They have provident funds and gratuity funds and superannuation funds. And as for allowances: goodness gracious me. There are dearness allowances (a quaint name for cost of living payments), monthly allowances, annual allowances, conveyance allowances, housing allowances, long-term allowances, and failing all that: special allowances. There are also training bonds, education loans, and lunch subsidies. No wonder base pay is so low. I’m surprised we have to pay them any salary at all; we have an allowance to cover every need.

On top of all that, just in case anyone was thinking of leaving, we have a retention bonus, and in the event we are super worried about it, there is a super-retention bonus. My head is spinning. And it gets worse. Each retention plan has different vesting periods for the various departments and each department has a different percentage of pay accrued for each year. Some work on base pay, others on gross pay which includes certain allowances and not others. Suddenly I wish I’d chosen another career: flower-arranging perhaps.

How am I ever going to explain all this to the Higher Beings in the US? Will they expect me to harmonise this with the rest of Europe? Americans are very big on harmonisation, you know. With the exception of their president, of course; he doesn’t seem to be big on harmony at all.

As always, I am glad to go home, even if I am not so glad to be back at my desk. Big Bad Boss calls me into his office. I am worried he is going to challenge my expenses, but no, he just wants to tell me his latest great idea: India.

I wait expectantly. I can tell by the look on his face he thinks he has a brilliant plan.

‘India’, he repeats as if that’s enough said.

I’m clearly going to have to beg him to tell me, so I do. Soon I wish I hadn’t.

Big Bad Boss’s big idea is that now we have a call centre in India for our customers, we could use it for our employees too. We could set up a shared service centre there for HR queries. Oh no, not shared service centres again. In my last company, they set up an employee helpline in one country to cover several others. Before the helpline, employees used to go to their local HR manager who could help them with little involvement from me. But the new call centre would forward employees directly to me if they asked any question containing the letter ‘B’ for ‘benefit’ or ‘C’ for ‘compensation’. They could be asking about closing times in the cafeteria but I’d still have to field the call. The so-called ‘helpline’ was really just a giant switchboard run by low-cost operators.

And low-cost labour is not nearly as cheap as you might think. You may be able to hire a telephone clerk for a few rupees, but try getting one fluent in three or more languages with a working knowledge of benefit plans for the same price. And then try keeping them without a super-retention plan and double-digit pay increases every few months. This high-fashion, low-cost country thing is going to be so last year, you just wait. Anyone knows the last thing you get from a service centre is any service; just try ringing one about your phone bill.

 Next time…Candid tries to remain calm at work.

Confessions of a benefits manager – June 2007