Confessions of a benefits manager: Tackling fringe benefits

Candid is tasked with sourcing detail on fringe benefit numbers, which entails visiting the finance department, and the fat controller.

I don’t think Big Bad Boss knows what he is asking. He wants me to go and work with finance and get to the bottom of our fringe benefit numbers. Well, I have tried this before and I can tell you our accounting folk are about as helpful as that nasty shop assistant across the road.

For a start, you have to work out which one of the many drones beavering away in their little grey cubes is responsible for the particular numbers you are after. If you ask one, he will generally tell you that he only does ‘forecasts’ and will point you to the other side of the passage where they do ‘actuals’. There, several more drones tell you they only do ‘sales ledger’ or they only do ‘fixed assets’, until you start to feel sorry for the narrowness of their niche little careers.

How would it go down, I wonder, if I were to say that I only do employee savings plans or I can’t possibly work on anything but recognition programmes. Big Bad Boss would laugh in my face. And life would get very dull indeed.

My pity for the sadness of existence in finance lasts only until I find my man, Kevin, who is the cost controller. He has an extra-large office, which is just as well because he is rather chubby. There is a vast pile of lever-arch files in the middle of the room. I have to step over several boxes to get inside. I ask him if he is having a bit of a clear-out. He looks at me blankly. No, it is always like this.

There are two chairs opposite his desk, clearly earmarked for visitors; only they, too, are covered with lever-arch files. Kevin, the fat controller, motions me to a tiny stool beside his desk. I have to squeeze in and sit alongside him, elbow to elbow. It feels very odd.

When asked about payroll numbers, Kevin digs into one of the files on the shelf beside him and refers to a printout. Don’t they do digital in accounting, I wonder?

I explain what I need to do. I want (well, Big Bad Boss wants) to tie out between the accounting reports and the costs shown on our benefits plan summaries. Kevin shows me his chart of accounts. There are about 50 codes that make up fringe benefits, none of which I recognise. There is nothing for it but to start with the first line, innocuously entitled ‘social costs’.

I look at it, expecting to see some relationship between the number and payroll costs above it; something vaguely like national insurance. There is no similarity; the monthly amount jumps up and down three times in any given month.

Shows me the entries

Kevin pulls out another file from beneath his desk. He shows me the entries making up each balance. Various other things, nothing to do with social security, are being booked to that account. This could take forever.

I ask him if he could send me a breakdown showing all the different things booked to each account. He asks: do you want a detailed trial balance, then? Well, I think so, if that gives me what I just asked for. He mutters something under his breath. We agree on a week’s time.

A week goes by and I still have no report from the fat controller. I ring him up. His phone goes straight to voicemail. I ring again in the afternoon and the next morning. I ring the administrator who works up there to see if he is in. Oh, yes, she tells me, he just leaves his phone on voicemail all the time. I realise that I will have to go back up there.

The fat controller doesn’t look pleased to see me. Erm, I’ve come for that report, I tell him. What report, he asks. Eh? The one we talked about last week. Kevin looks at me without any sign of recollection. I need to get detail of the fringe benefit costs, like we talked about last week. You were going to run off a report, I huff.

I go back to my desk and wait. A couple of days later, I call up there again, and finally Kevin sends me a report off the system. I open it excitedly. My heart sinks. It is useless. It has only the high-level numbers for each code. There is nothing to tell me what has been booked against each line. I march back up to Kevin and explain, for what feels like the eighth time, what it is that I am looking for.

Well, he says, he can’t do that. I will have to get it for myself. The entries on the system are all booked in summary. The only detail comes from the general ledger. There is an electronic interface but no reporting functionality, no way to drill down. The only way to get to the detail is through his paper files, which break out all the journal entries.

I look round the office in despair: you could lose a pony in the mess, and not find it. Well, we’ll have to work on it together, I say. After all, Big Bad Boss has agreed this project with his manager. This isn’t strictly true, but I can’t think of any other way to get Kevin on board.

I flip open my laptop and find the summary report, adding columns to complete the detail. The first code takes us two hours to get to grips with. There are just 49 more to do. Sitting on the little stool with my knees under the desk next to Kevin’s, I suddenly become aware that he doesn’t use deodorant. Possibly not soap either.

It is going to be a very long week.

Next time… Candid goes to a conference.