How to raise your profile as a benefits professional

Kate Donovan looks how benefits professionals can raise their profile both internally and within the wider HR community

Calculating a return on investment in terms of people policy and benefits is notoriously difficult, so when a key concern of the board is the organisation’s bottom line, it is often a time for benefits and HR practitioners to prove their worth.

If they are successful in this task and make their achievements sparkle in their own organisation, they are also likely to stand out, not only internally but also with other potential employers on the look out for talent. Reward and recognition, in the form of salary increases and promotion, should swiftly follow.

To gain credibility as a business partner, benefits managers must ensure they align benefits with organisational strategy.

The language of finance is key when communicating with senior management, and convincing the bosses that benefits are more than just a cost to the company is a crucial step in gaining credibility.

When proving their worth to finance and managing directors, ammunition for benefits practitioners can come in the form of salary sacrifice. The national insurance (NI) savings that an employer can make via salary sacrifice benefits such as pension contributions, bikes for work and childcare vouchers can show the powers that be that benefits are not just a cost. Jon Ingham, a director in human capital at Buck Consultants, says: “A great way to improve the return from benefits provision is to reduce the costs of perks. One way of doing this is via salary sacrifice.”

NI savings through salary sacrifice can then be spent in other areas of the organisation outside HR, re-invested within employees’ pension funds or used to fund a new project such as flexible benefits.

Another tool that can be used by benefits professionals to add value to the organisation is total reward. By communicating the entire employment package to employees, including pay, bonuses, benefits, working environment and career prospects, the theory is that staff become more engaged and, in turn, more productive and are less likely to leave as they appreciate the full value of what is on offer. By tracking staff turnover rates, benefits professionals may be able to prove that their total reward initiative has indeed made an impact.

Sickness absence gains
With strong empirical evidence, sickness absence management is also an area where benefits professionals can prove their worth. The problem though is maintaining the momentum and making sure that results continue to be delivered after the first year of the implementation of any new sickness absence management system.

A successful benefits and HR professional should also be able to demonstrate their worth through creative thinking by providing their organisation with an edge. Barry Hoffman, head of HR for City technology firm Charteris, advises those who want to climb the career ladder to not simply keep abreast of what rivals are up to, but to also look more widely and scan the whole of the benefits and HR community. “Keep an eye on the environment and horizon so you can bring something to your organisation which other people don’t,” he says.

Creating an innovative, well-structured benefits package and HR strategy can improve employee engagement, aid retention, and reduce the costs of staff turnover and the time and money necessary for recruitment. Matt Baker, flexible benefits consultant at Jardine Lloyd Thompson Benefit Solutions, says: “The cost of replacing somebody is say approximately £5,000 by the time you’ve added on training costs, agency fees and lost time. It’s quite an expensive programme.”

By implementing a benefits scheme that is innovative, supports the organisation’s strategy and is appreciated by both employees and senior management alike, benefits and HR practitioners should find that promotion comes their way. However, for those aspiring to reach the highest rung on the career ladder – a board level position – they may find it beyond their reach as few HR professionals make it this far. Nevertheless, the ambitious HR professional can certainly strive for a place on an executive management team where often they will have more influence over decisions than if they were on the board itself.

However, Ingham says: “Compensation and benefits managers face an even greater challenge as many are quite specialist and are often more removed from business issues then the rest of HR.”

One HR professional who has progressed up the career ladder to hold a key position is Russell Martin, HR director at Norwich Union, who is a member of the executive management team for the UK business. The team is charged with the operational management and strategy of the organisation. The decisions they make are probed and ratified by a board formed typically of non-executive directors.

“It’s about influencing the chief executive, the way the organisation runs and the environment that is created. That for me is an executive type of position, [although] not necessarily a board position,” Russell says.

Broadening roles
For benefits and HR professionals to reach the top of their organisation, they would do well to extend their function, their management remit and their experience as much as possible.

Hoffman says that once a benefits specialist reaches a point in their career where they manage a team of 10-to-15 people they may then find the opportunity to expand their function by, for example, managing an employee relations team, which, in turn, gives them a broader influence in the organisation and allows them to move up.

Working in a broader role should help hone the communication and listening skills necessary to manage projects throughout the business, even outside of the HR function.

Stephen Moir, director of people and policy at Cambridgeshire County Council, says: “You’ve got to be a generalist first and a specialist second, and don’t be afraid of opportunities that present themselves on the basis that just because you’re an HR person you don’t have the skills.”

General management skills certainly helped Hoffman in the credibility stakes with Charteris. He believes that his background in general management and technology as head of operations at Volkswagen, was the reason he was brought into Charteris at management board level.”

[Charteris] were actually looking for somebody who wasn’t just an HR person but who could understand the pains that a business of our size was going through,” he says.

Benefits specialists may also find opportunities to rise to the top by moving to bigger organisations where specialists are needed at a high level due to their technical knowledge of complex perks such as pensions.

Jo Sellwood, managing director of HR recruitment consultancy Strategi Search and Selection, says that when her firm places people in group reward director positions it is often with bigger organisations that can accommodate individual specialists, whereas in smaller organisations without this need, senior board or executive management positions tend to be given to a generalist.

Increasingly, reward and benefits specialists are perceived to be playing an integral role in the business as a whole, says Sellwood, who adds that this trend is reflected in the recruitment market with both junior and executive level employees often being given ‘reward business partner’ job titles. “[This is because] they talk about what the organisation needs to achieve and what needs to be done from a rewards perspective. The reward partner actually asks the questions to help come up with a scheme that the business needs to deliver,” she explains.

Their importance to an organisation is borne out by the results of The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Personnel rewards survey 2007, conducted by Croner, which showed that compensation and benefits specialists are the highest-paid group in the HR field, receiving as much as 16% above the median basic salary for a senior manager, at £50,000 compared with £43,272.

So if the career prospects are not great internally, it may pay to look elsewhere if only to boost the salary. To prove their worth during the search for a new post, benefits professionals would be wise to make the most of what they have achieved at their own organisation.

Liz Lane, a consultant at HR recruitment firm Frazer Jones, says: “Involvement in innovative plans, particularly cost-cutting initiatives and success with employee engagement are attractive to future employers.

But to be sure of being considered for prime jobs, it helps to raise your personal profile. “The reward market is small and, therefore, word of mouth proves to be an effective marketing tool for some reward professionals,” Lane adds.

Conference speaking, obtaining coverage of new benefits initiatives in the trade press and taking on prominent positions in HR associations can all help in raising the personal profile and also look good on a curriculum vitae. In addition, such activities help build up knowledge of benefits, which is also of value to an existing employer.

Suzanne Laverick, UK employee benefits manager at Cadbury Schweppes, is well known to the wider benefits and HR community, speaks at industry events and takes time with her employer’s encouragement to get involved with community and business events. “You pick up valuable skills that you can adapt and use within the workplace,” she says.

Joining an HR association such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) can also be beneficial in building up industry knowledge. Cheryl King, member development executive at the CIPD, says membership adds to an individual’s value by keeping them up-to-date with changes in employment law and giving them a chance to earn new qualifications. She says: “In terms of development, we run a range of training courses. The knowledge they gain, they will put back into the organisation.”

Personal prestige
Entering industry awards is another way to potentially get people to sit up and take note of what you have done, both externally and internally. Winning not only helps reinforce the employer brand externally, but also reminds bosses that their benefits manager is an extremely employable asset. It can also add more than a little shine to an individual’s curriculum vitae. Tim Roberts, principal, employee communications at Buck Consultants, who has helped judge benefits awards in the past, advises that winners tend to be able to demonstrate the value of a project or initiative through, for example, savings, increased productivity or a reduction in sickness absence. He says: “Winning an award builds up your personal prestige and own self image which makes you more confident, which makes you try harder [and] which makes you deliver the programme employers may be looking for.”

Whether it is supporting gaining press coverage, conference speaking or entering awards, Moir, however, warns individuals to ensure that extending their external profile does not come at a cost to the employer otherwise it could do more damage than good. “Always be clear about ensuring there’s a payback for the organisation, even if that’s purely [in terms of its] reputation. Also, make sure there’s a clear balance between the amount of time you spend on your external work and your internal work.

“The golden rule for me even with my involvement with the Public Sector People Managers’ Association [as its vice president] is: the day job must come first.”

So if hard work on projects or strategy is undervalued internally, then steps need to be taken to polish and refine the results so that they speak for themselves and demonstrate the worth of benefits and HR to the organisation, at the same time as adding a little sparkle to the personal profile.


Tips for the top

• Show your employer that benefits are more than just a cost by maximising savings through salary sacrifice, boosting employee engagement and reducing staff turnover.
• Scan the trade press and network with peers from other organisations to find forward-thinking innovative ideas that can be applied to your organisation.
• Take on more general management roles both within and outside benefits and HR.

• Attend and network at conferences and industry events in order to increase your knowledge.
• Take on roles with industry bodies to help boost your personal profile and to keep up to date with relevant legislative changes and developments in the market.
• Raise your personal profile as well as that of your employer brand by speaking at conferences and to the trade press.

Case study: Cambridgeshire’s Moir looks to broader issues†

Stephen Moir, director of people and policy at Cambridgeshire County Council, has built his profile internally by taking on more general management tasks outside HR and externally, via his position as vice president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA).

As well as being responsible for HR at the council, Moir has made efforts to broaden his role to include corporate policy, strategy partnerships and diversity. He has also taken responsibility for finance administration and facilities management on a temporary basis from time to time.

As a consequence of his willingness to take on extra responsibilities and his ability, he has been promoted to the council’s equivalent of an executive team.

Moir has decided to remain an HR generalist but has made sure that he has picked up experience of benefits and other disciplines along the way in order to advance his career. He says: “I’ve always been quite clear that I’ve stayed fairly generalist in all the roles that I’ve covered and actually, in terms of career progression, it gives you a broad overview of all the specialisms within the HR arena but it doesn’t necessarily hamstring you with only having expertise in one area.”†

Moir has also maintained a high profile externally by becoming a regular on the conference circuit and will next year embark on a 12-month term as the PPMA’s president. His work with the PPMA ensures he is involved with numerous national initiatives and has a part in influencing the shaping of public sector HR policy. He says: “If you are perceived to have good worth within your own profession, that feeds its way back into your organisation as well, so clearly external reputation is also important in terms of how your organisation perceives you.”