Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid gets creative with budgets


Last year I escaped the job of putting together the department budgets. Inexplicably, Big Bad Boss had given this task to my colleague Lazy Susan, which is rather like asking a toddler to make a wedding cake. Now she is away, it has fallen back to me. I look at Susan’s offering for last year and it is very messy indeed. Calculations have been overwritten and figures transposed. Even our salaries are wrong. In fact, it looks like she randomly changed them to force it to add up. My eyes roll.

Luckily, finance sent out a lovely shiny new worksheet, but it is a sloppy job. There is a new planning analyst called Darren. He didn’t bother to set the print settings, so it prints over 12 pages, and the font is so tiny I have to zoom in to read it on screen.

No salary increases

The worksheet comes with a set of instructions, running to 20 pages. It reads like a list of commandments. The first is: thou shall not show any increase for salaries. Really? We had submitted data showing a modest increase in the UK, so how come that has gone away? On the upside, I won’t have to help out with merit planning if there won’t be any. However, if there are no pay rises, managers take up even more of our time with ad-hoc reviews and bogus promotions and, more importantly, I was looking forward to a rise myself. Huff.

The next edict is: thou shall not show any training budget. Then why did they bother to add a row called ‘training’, I have to wonder. Just to make a point? As far as I can remember we have not been allowed to budget any departmental training for years. The budget is all held centrally in organisation and development. The problem is it develops and runs the most pointless and boring training courses such as ‘leadership essentials’ and ‘effective project management’. Yawn. What anyone in that department can offer in the way of effectiveness training is hard to imagine. I’d much rather go externally and learn something relevant from a competent professional, but that will never be an option.

Need to cut costs

Finally, finance decrees that thou shall not submit a budget of more than 80% of last year’s actual spend. Let’s just stop and think about that one for a minute. So we are expected to reduce costs by one-fifth? We are only a small department with limited variable cost. Unless we get rid of Lazy Susan, I don’t see how we can possibly meet that target. Tempting though it is to submit a budget excluding my unproductive colleague just to show them how ridiculous their guidelines are, I decide against it. It would be awful if someone took me up on it; I’m fond of her in a strange way, and, most of all, her inadequacies make me look good.

So, I am left with some kind of impossible mathematical quest. I take a series of numbers that add up to one number and I have to magically make them add up to something else. I do wonder why they ask us. Finance could just set Darren to produce nice budgets that line up exactly the way it wants them to, and we could all go home early instead. Higher Beings have a theory that the process is bottom-up and therefore has us all engaged in the corporate profit mission, but, in practice, any buy-in is promptly lost when we have to come back to the number they want.

If I had been designing the worksheet, I’d have to put the actual spend in the same file so that people can see what they are doing, but no, Darren has sent a separate report. Not very helpful. He has also hard-coded a benefits fringe rate, which I know for a fact to be incorrect for this team and for the company as a whole. Pension costs alone are more. A couple of years ago, I went into battle over fringe rates but it was like trying to change the weather. Some thunderous god in finance decides the percentage to use, and that is that. It is no wonder that managers fail to take the planning process very seriously.

Budget versus actual spend

The other thing that devalues the whole budgeting process is that finance does not actually pay too much attention to the final spend against budget. It is very odd for a company that puts so much emphasis on numbers, where a Higher Being can be roughly cast aside for a bad quarter, to largely ignore overspend at the department level. Last year, we came in nowhere near Lazy Susan’s fictitious cost estimate, yet it seems to have gone unnoticed. On the other hand, finance will pay attention to the budget we submit. It all has to add up to the magic profit number dreamed up by the Higher Beings. Yet, even reducing all variable costs by a reasonable amount, we cannot get to 80% of last year, so I am stuck.

So, I do the budget realistically and then, just as a little distraction, I add a token amount to the training budget. Sure enough, Darren spots the training and tells me to take it out. Then I sort of accidentally delete the fringe rate, which brings us splendidly close to the number it wants. Yes, I know this is inaccurate, but then so was the number it put in, and with any luck it won’t realise.

As I had hoped, Darren is drowned in other responses and fails to check the detail of this last version. Yes, I do feel guilty. I prefer to do things properly, but sometimes I have to settle for doing things the way they work around here.

Next time…Candid works mindfully.