Confessions of a benefits manager

Blogs confessions imageCandid: You can call me a jobsworth if you like, but I really resent doing stuff that isn’t my responsibility. Take international assignments. In theory, this is no longer anything to do with me. OK, so about a hundred years ago (well, nearly), I did work on the international assignment policy. At that time, my company was sending people all over the world, incurring double tax liabilities at every post.

When someone realised that a single expatriate could cost as much as a quarter of a million dollars, they decided something had to be done. I wrote down some simple rules in the form of a policy. End of story. But sadly, it’s not the end of the story. Now, even though international assignments are administered by Learning and Development (don’t ask me why), people still come to me with their little problems.

At least some queries are reward related. Today, some guy in Brazil is being sent to France on a permanent contract and he is concerned that the company might not be offering him enough money. His worries are well-founded; some of our managers are as clued up on international pay as they are on Nepalese pig-breeding. Pedro, the poor Brazilian, has been offered a measly 5% increase and wished bon chance on his way.

The offer is not even on the scale of French pay rates for the job. Also, if he then goes back to Brazil in the future, any money he has paid into the French social security system will be lost. Knowing a dodgy deal when he sees one, Pedro has tried to calculate the differences in tax and the cost of living in France for himself, and consequently his HR manager wants my help to understand these workings. I don’t know how many times I have told people not to try this at home. Leave net-to-net calculations, as with any other adrenaline sports, to the professionals. 

I don’t even do them; I pay a few hundred pounds to a consultant for an estimate based on proper tax tables and economic data. I’ve told people about this service. I’ve posted the information on our intranet. I’ve sent them contact details but, again and again, they come back to me.

I’m worried that our people don’t seem to understand the concept of different pay rates. I am most disturbed by the head of our Swiss office who is recruiting a new European team. Actually, he is the one person I wish would consult me a little more, because he is creating merry havoc with our internal equity. He keeps hiring people from neighbouring countries, agreeing they will work on assignment from their home country, and then offers a starting salary based on our Swiss pay ranges, which are the highest in Europe.

When challenged, he tells me that he wants his whole team to be paid the same in euros regardless of where they are based. It is only fair, right? I hope he doesn’t go and hire anyone in India because they would be so well paid it could distort their local economy.

Some queries are just silly. Really, it is as though the people ringing me up have left their brains at home. The HR guy in Germany rings me up because he wants to send someone from Munich to a smaller provincial office. How interesting, I think, but what has that got to do with me? It seems the employee’s wife didn’t need a car where they lived before because there was a good train service, but now she will. Now, there is no way this is covered by our car policy as we don’t do second cars. And there is no way this is covered by the domestic relocation policy – you don’t even need to read it, to figure that one out. At the end of the day, if someone wants to give the employee a bit more cash to keep him happy, that’s their business, they don’t need to involve me. But of course they will.

Another guy rings me when he wants to move an employee from a country which offers a fuel card to one that doesn’t. I wonder what he wants me to do: harmonise fuel benefits across Europe? Set up a special scheme just for this one employee. I don’t think so. The solution is the same; give the employee a bit of cash to ease the transition and assume they’ll get over it.

Some queries are not even reward related. I was asked to provide a per-diem meals allowance for engineers working abroad.  I know it’s something we offer, but it’s not exactly a benefit, is it? And how am I supposed to find out what a sandwich costs in Geneva versus in Bangalore? I have even been asked how we treat domestic live-in partners when it comes to paying for family visits on short-term assignments. I’m beginning to feel like some sort of counsellor.

It’s not that these queries take any time. It’s not even that I can’t deal with them easily enough. But they are not my job. Nowhere in my job description does it say ‘general helpline for all matters related to domestic and international relocation, no matter how trivial or ridiculous’. When I do this stuff I get no credit for it. I’m lucky if I get a ‘thank you’ for my trouble.

What’s even worse is that the new international assignment administration team are asking me stuff too. They ask questions about tax rates in Spain and housing allowances in Poland. I know they are American, so their knowledge of geography is limited to those countries the US has been at war with recently, but surely it is their job to know this stuff. Not mine.

Next time…Candid plays buzzword bingo.

Confessions of a benefits manager – April 2007