How to manage legacy employee benefits strategies

One of the biggest challenges for HR and reward professionals starting a new job is resisting the temptation to overhaul, or even ditch, legacy strategies left in place by a predecessor in an effort to make their mark on the business.


  • New recruits must resist the temptation to start their new role with an overhaul of their predecessor’s strategies.
  • Some organisations may simply require an HR professional to maintain current standards.
  • Speaking the same, finance-based language as their new executive board is a key skill for all new recruits.
  • Project management teams can help new recruits to manage their workloads.

Such action is particularly tempting during an economic downturn, as employees at all levels of seniority fight to demonstrate their value to an organisation.

But there are better approaches to a new role to consider, not least because employers will typically measure HR and reward professionals’ success by how they do things, not necessarily by what they do.

Frank Mason, an interim reward consultant, says: “One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of new assignments is making a good start: hitting the ground running and delivering value from day one.

“The phrase ‘hitting the ground running’ has connotations of delivering at pace, getting straight to solutions, bringing in needed changes and enhancements quickly. This is important.

Less haste, more speed

“However, I have learned from experience that sometimes ‘less haste, more speed’ rings true in designing and implementing strategies that will deliver sustainable improvements. So it is important [for a new recruit] to step back and think consciously about [the right] approach before they get started.”

New recruits should first take time to understand their new organisation and any legacy HR and reward strategies in place. This should include an analysis of why these are in place and their cost to the business.

Rachel Stone, partner and head of HR consulting at accountancy firm Smith and Williamson, says: “Preparation is a stage many people miss out. I think there’s a lot to be done beforehand, understanding what is already in place and asking for obvious things, such as scheme rules, guidance details of any legacy or historical schemes that are no longer open, but that still apply to a certain group of staff, and understanding whether there are any exceptions to the normal benefits package.

“Are there groups of individuals at a senior level for whom different arrangements have been negotiated?”

Share information

New recruits can ask for this information to be ready for them on arrival at the organisation if their new employer is reluctant to share information with them before their start date.

Third-party agreements should also be factored into the review process, including product and service provision, contract terms and renewal dates.

Philip Hutchinson, managing director at HR consultancy RePosition, says: “If [renewal dates] are in the next three weeks, [new recruits] won’t have time to do anything else.”

Getting to know key stakeholders, namely an employer’s management team, is equally important. Malcolm Higgs, professor of HR management and organisation behaviour at the University of Southampton, says: “It is really about genuinely being interested in understanding what keeps them awake at night, what are the business drivers, and not really talking HR to them at all.

Engage with the business

“A lot of it is often down to the credibility of the individual. I don’t mean their track record or their standing, but the way they actually engage with the business. If they start from the point of view of ‘I’d really like to understand what [the chief executive officer] is trying to achieve with this business and I really need to understand how [the HR team] can help them do that’, rather than ‘I’ve come up with this great idea for a benefits strategy or a total reward strategy’. If they start to talk business first, HR second, then they have got more chance of having a hearing [from the board].

“It’s about language and about a genuine interest in finding out about the business.”

Christian Verri, senior manager, employment solutions at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says: “I often find that [employers] have not made the link between business and benefits strategies and are more concerned with competitiveness.”

Mason adds: “From high-quality conversations, [new recruits] will also give themselves a chance to understand any political influences on the reward agenda. They should ignore the political realities at their peril.”

Tax implications

As a rule of thumb, chief executive officers typically want to understand how reward and benefits investment is going to bring success to their business, whereas finance directors will be concerned about tax implications and compliance, says Hutchinson.

“[The finance director] will want to know that whatever [the employer] is doing is compliant,” he says. “It’s not just about cost, it’s about risk, too. So [a new recruit] may save themselves money by removing something, but then get a huge fine somewhere down the line.”

An understanding of the changing demands that businesses face because of the economic downturn is key to the dialogue new recruits have with their board.

This means new recruits need to focus more on value for money and assessing value when conversing with their board, rather than talking about slashing costs, says Southampton University’s Higgs.

“HR is going to have to be much more evidence-based and move away from the ‘me too’ approach. The ability to critically evaluate things and knowing the questions to ask is key.”

Ask questions

Matthew Gregson, managing consultant at Thomsons Online Benefits, agrees. “The best thing to do is ask questions,” he says. “Enquire, don’t advocate.”

Employee support is equally important for new recruits. Focus groups are one consideration, as long as employees are not forbidden from speaking on certain subjects, and can work particularly well in helping new recruits understand employees’ perceived value of the benefits on offer.

A stint in the staff canteen can also prove invaluable. Hutchinson advises new recruits to ask employees what they think about their organisation’s benefits and then stand back and listen to their responses. “They will usually complain, but [new recruits] can work with that,” he says.

But he believes that compliance, particularly statutory requirements regarding tax and legislation, should be new recruits’ primary focus. “Stakeholders have to know that if they don’t comply in certain countries, they will go to prison,” he warns.

Smith and Williamson’s Stone adds that the rules underlying some benefits packages are not always obvious.

Penalty schemes

“A number of the housing associations I deal with have penalty schemes in place within their pension arrangements, so if they were to close a scheme, or change the type of scheme they operate, there are significant financial penalties, which might actually change decisions they make around that particular area,” she says.

New recruits do not, of course, have to tackle their new role alone. Their immediate team can prove invaluable in helping them to navigate their way around the business and achieve their objectives.

Project management teams may also prove useful. For example, Hutchinson creates a project management team on arrival at each employer with which he works, and he says external advisers may form part of this.

New recruits should make regular contact with any project teams and advisers they use and, most importantly, pay attention to what they have to say.

Ability to listen

In fact, the ability to listen could make or break a new recruit’s career prospects, because it is only through listening that HR and reward professionals can hope to identify an affordable and compliant strategy with which to steer their organisation’s HR and reward programmes. But strategies must be fit for purpose and aligned with the organisation’s objectives and affordability, rather than based on a new recruit’s assumption about industry best practice.

“A common misconception among HR people is that best practice is a definable thing,” says Stone.

“But best practice is very different for a small and medium enterprise [SME] or an organisation that is just managing to cling on to its livelihood, than it is going to be for a large international employer with far more resources at its fingertips.”

As part of their initial learning curve, new recruits should also be honest with themselves about the job at hand.

As Thomsons Online Benefits’ Gregson says: “If the benefits are in great shape, then [they should] make sure that [they] don’t rock the boat. Maybe the best thing [they] can do is not let high standards slip.”

Jeremy Thornton - Founder, Oasis HR

VIEWPOINT: Jeremy Thornton, founder, Oasis HR

The general rule of thumb seems to be that new recruits have 90 days to make an impact in their new job. So how should HR and reward professionals prepare themselves for this and make sure their business strategy is the right one?

A fantastic senior strategic employee I know, who took a new role in Germany, learnt the phrase ‘This is a pen, not a magic wand’ to prepare herself on day one. This is a great, subtle way for a new recruit to tell new colleagues that they cannot be expected to change everything in a day.

On a more practical note, there are a number of tips for helping new recruits make a lasting impact in their new role.

Firstly, they should not believe everything they are told. It is not unusual for new recruits to arrive at their new employer to discover that the promised budget has vanished, the strategic aims have altered the day-to-day activities, or that their objective is merely to keep things going.

This explains the need for new recruits to re-ask all the questions they asked during their interview, especially around their employer’s objectives and expectations for both their role and the business.

New recruits should avoid the ‘big bang’ theory: turning up on day one, changing everything and assuming that just because it worked really well in their last organisation means it will work well now. This is an especially dangerous approach if the new recruit is working in a new country or culture.

Instead, new recruits should take their time to speak to everyone in their team. Ignoring the feelings of the person in the team who applied for, but did not get, the job can be a quick way for new recruits to alienate themselves. That person could, after all, be everyone else’s best friend and confidant.

Paula Hayes

CASE STUDY: Listening approach keeps Network Rail’s reward and benefits package on track

A key part of Paula Hayes’ approach to her new role as head of reward and benefits at Network Rail, which she took up in September 2012, was listening.

“I was very conscious of sitting and listening to people and asking lots of questions,” she says. “It was an opportunity to ask the dumb questions because I was the new girl, so I took advantage of that. I asked the questions that perhaps [new recruits] can’t ask two or three years in because they should know the answer.

“I wanted to find out what makes people tick, what makes the business tick and what was going to make us attractive as
an employer.”

Hayes’ preparation for her new role included an informal meeting with her team ahead of her official start date, to grasp its current approach to HR and benefits management.

On joining the organisation, she soon discovered that one of the key challenges of her role was its diversity. Network Rail is a large organisation spanning multiple locations across the country, with employees’ roles ranging from management and engineers to railway track workers.

“It is a very diverse and dispersed workforce,” says Hayes. “So, for me, it was about finding out what [benefits] we have on offer that meet all employees’ different needs and trying to understand what is out there in what is a very large and complex organisation, and pulling all the relevant information out.”

Pressing challenge

But it soon became clear that a more pressing challenge was the lack of a comprehensive benefits strategy, which was a result of Network Rail’s benefits provision having evolved over the organisation’s 10-year history.

“Throughout that period, there has always been a philosophy of having a good, comprehensive benefits package,” says Hayes.

“But what I found when I got here was lots and lots of [benefits], so there was clearly a great intent to have a great benefits package for people.

“What had not been done was to pull these together in a coherent way for an individual employee to understand.”

Hayes also used her own experience of being a new recruit to inform Network Rail’s HR and benefits strategy.

“I was using the process to assess how a new employee would feel about the [benefits] package and if it was engaging and relevant for me,” she says.