Confessions of a benefits manager: Belgian waffle

The organisation’s employees in Belgium have no benefits at all, so Candid does her best to build a case for them, but with little success

If there is one thing I hate having to do, it is having to do something again. And again. And over again. Aaaagh. Especially if I did it perfectly well the first time around.

And I did a lovely job of analysing our benefits offering in Belgium. It wasn’t difficult to come to the conclusion that we are behind market. We don’t offer any benefits in Belgium. That’s right. None. Not even a box of chocolates. And, looking at market data, just about everyone else offers something, and most are offering rather a lot.

Still, despite the rock-solid case for introducing benefits, I couldn’t get approval to make changes. Blame the recession, or the penny-pinching meanness of the Higher Beings (our executive committee), but, either way, the answer was still ‘no’.

And that wasn’t the first time I’d brought up the subject. I did the same benefits review the year before in response to a request from local management. They had lost two key managers to another firm that offered a proper benefits package, including of all the radical notions: a pension plan. We have also lost a number of good technical candidates for the same reason. All the sign-on bonuses in the world won’t bring someone in if we can’t match their benefits in the long term.

One additional argument is that the tax structure in Belgium is quite biased towards benefits. Just about any euro you give in benefits will be taxed considerably less than a euro paid as salary. The system is wide open to tax avoidance in that respect. It seems really weird that a country producing new complex legislation every day should have a tax system that is quite backward compared with the UK. Anyway, our boys in Belgium are pretty miffed that we haven’t got it sorted to take advantage of the loopholes. If there is one thing that will get a local management team riled up, it is paying more tax than they need to.

I never really got to the bottom of why the changes were refused the time before, when, for once, we did have some budget. I think it was something to do with the unpopularity of the Belgium MD. He left under a bit of a cloud not long after.

I heard it was something our internal audit team had stumbled across; something to do with one of our major suppliers being his wife, but that might just be a rumour. Meanwhile, our staff in Belgium still have no benefits.

Banging the desk

Now, suddenly, Big Bad Boss is banging the desk, and asking me why we are so behind market there. Someone has clearly been bending his ear. I remind him of the case I put forward last year. And the study I carried out the year before that. Well then, he tells me, it should be easy enough to just refresh the data and present it again. Sigh.

I love the way he talks about refreshing the data, as if I can just press a button and everything will be recalculated at today’s date. If only it did work that way. I will have to compile the market data from the latest sources. The data will say exactly the same thing, I am sure of that, because companies don’t just suddenly stop offering benefits. Still, updating the data is the right thing to do. There are some people who would just change the date on the old data, but I do have some integrity, you know. I will need to completely redo the costing, as well.

That means running a new headcount listing and reworking all the numbers using new salary data, because almost none of our original employees in Belgium are still with us. Many left to go to better-paying organisations, and the ones that were left, being the bottom of the pile, have been made redundant by now in theannual cull. So, we have a whole new team there, all with bigger salaries because we’ve had to pay new hires over the odds to compensate for the lack of benefits.

It is tempting to analyse how much money we would have saved if we had just put in a proper plan in the first place. But, pointing out the inadequacies of the Higher Beings’ decisions isn’t exactly a career-enhancing activity. I pretend this is the first time we have looked at it, simulating a bad memory, like Big Bad Boss. To help support the case, I draw up a list of candidates we have lost because of benefits issues. I also find plan specifics for our top competitors in that country. Don’t ask me how I got such detailed competitor data; let’s just say my spies are everywhere.

The market data is robust in support of a change. Most companies offer a basic pension, healthcare and life insurance as a minimum. Even with bumped-up salaries, we are 10-20% behind the market on total package. Also, considering the tax implications both for the employee and for the company, the case for introducing benefits is irrefutable.

And yet the Higher Beings do refute it. I can’t believe it. What exactly have they got against Belgium, anyway? It boils down to the fact that the Belgian business is not making its stretch forecast. The Belgians are blaming the product, but other countries in Europe are doing much better with the same product range. And the Higher Beings are not willing to reward poor performance with ‘extra’ benefits. Bad Belgium.

Next time… Candid organises a Christmas bonus.