Benefits managers: Off the record

Jamin Robertson chats frankly to insiders about the real activities of the benefits industry.

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The image of a buttoned-down compensation and benefits professional, well-versed on complex administration requirements, is torn apart in this off-the-record account of benefits managers. Some, it appears, are not as clean-cut as they would have us believe.

Judging by the comments from our sources, a few benefits professionals rival high-profile footballers when it comes to ‘playing away from home’. "There’s the HR forum [held this year on the P&O Aurora sailing from Southampton], I call it the Loveboat. This year, I was sitting there watching an HR manager across the room sucking face with another manager from a [rival] firm, in front of us all. [They] were oblivious."

Apparently the boat is popular with some, less for its thought-provoking seminars and more for its after-hours discotheque, where HR people have been known to "network" on an intimate basis.

And our source reveals that not all compensation and benefits professionals have great people skills.

"I wonder why some of them are working in HR. They’re hopeless [at employee relations]. I’ve talked to senior managers in some organisations about their good folk and have been told: ‘I couldn’t give a stuff about them, what’s in it for us?’ A lot of them probably spend more on their Christmas party."

This kind of penny pinching isn’t, it seems, the exclusive domain of small players. "One of the big supermarkets actually charged its employees to use their voluntary benefits package, I think it was about £20 for them to subscribe. They also charged the providers as well. You’ve got to hand it to them really."

As for professionalism? ‘You’re having a laugh’, suggests one source. "I was in charge of a print run of 100,000 benefits books. After confirming everything with them, checking to make sure it was right, I pressed the button to start the print run. I then get a call from the rewards and benefits manager, asking to hold it up. They wanted to check something."

On the provider side, the story is told of the entrepreneurial skills of a former employee used while negotiating a deal at a nursing home. "We give all our staff a hotel allowance. The next time we dealt with the [nursing home] they rang up and asked if [our employee] would be staying again. He’d been staying in one of their rooms the whole time, presumably they fed him all week as well."

Having soaked up this character assault, our benefits sources are not slow to return the volley. Some employers give the impression providers are besieging hard-working benefits managers on a thrice-hourly basis, armed with the next big sell. "Brokers are constantly on your back. [It’s all] ‘can we do this? Can we do that? Can we have your email?’ [You turn them away but] they still ring you up. I used to tell them to go away nicely, well I don’t do that anymore," bemoans one benefits professional.

Another benefits manager confessed to a deep suspicion of the palm-greasing methods employed by providers, in this case, fleet companies: "You do need to make sure with suppliers that are on commission, who is [getting the] fees. With cars, there are offers out there: [such as] ‘come and have a couple of days playing with our cars in Italy’. You always have to look carefully at what people are offering [because] when the deal is done, in retrospect, what’s it going to look like?"

One compensation and benefits professional says the solution is to build good relationships. "[Get to know the] supplier so they don’t let you down, and they [must] understand your industry. Some of our people can’t read, and [anyway] they haven’t got access to the internet."

Finally, one source was only too happy to turn the mirror on the profession: "In HR as a whole, there’s some really good people at the top and [then] there’s the not very focused individuals." So is HR, and benefits management in particular, a short ladder to the top? "[Yes, and] it’s very dangerous. HR and compensation and benefits is not seen as a key business area, and it’s undervalued by [some] people in the business. Things need to go catastrophically wrong in [some] businesses before they start appreciating [HR] people."