How to deal with difficult employees

Driven by better perks offerings from rivals and previous employers,troublesome employees who bleat about their reward package need to be isolated and calmed down, says Vicki Taylor

Case study: GlaxoSmithKline

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Most managers have to deal with the odd staff complaint, but while you might expect benefits managers to be shielded from such difficulties – after all, benefits are meant to be beneficial for staff – they are certainly not exempt from employee backlash. >From gripes about the choice available in salary sacrifice schemes to issues with private medical insurance (PMI), not every employee will always be satisfied with their package. In fact, The difficult employees survey 2005, carried out by law firm Halliwells which questioned 1,600 HR staff, found that 24% spent a “considerable” amount of time dealing with awkward employees. The biggest bugbear for HR and benefits managers appears to be company cars, with several saying that this, along with PMI, is a common area of dissatisfaction. One HR manager from the food and drink sector explains that his company faced challenges when it brought all its fleets together from different UK operations.

“One part of the business had a very generous car policy. What we did was to red circle people, so we didn’t take anything off them. What we did was freeze [their car benefits] and increased other entitlements such as holiday or PMI so people didn’t lose out. “In a lot of cases, it came down to one-to-one consultation. We said ‘we are sorry that you see this as being a take away, but it’s not, it’s a rebalancing’.” Graham Drewett, compensation and benefits manager UK at LogicaCMG, agrees that company cars tend to be an emotive area. Although the organisation has a wide choice of company cars available from Ford’s portfolio of marques, such as Mazda, Volvo and Jaguar, he believes employees may still feel hard done by if they can’t get their hands on status-symbol brands such as BMW and Mercedes. In these instances, the disappointment may never go away. “If a guy can’t get his BMW 3 series, while he might accept the offer [of what there is], he [might] never get over it,” says Drewett. Resistant to change Richard Stewart, director of Redbourne flexible benefits consultancy, frequently witnesses problems when employers try to change their benefits packages. “We find consistently in any organisation that there are a few individuals who are cynical about change. They will often be in middle-management and will have been there for a long time, as opposed to younger employees who are more likely to embrace [change].”

Mark Edelsten, head of rewards, Europe at HR services company Mercer Human Resource Consulting, explains issues also arise when organisations are involved in mergers and acquisitions. Pensions, in particular, can cause difficulties. “Where you have different groups operating with different pension schemes, the harmonisation of those schemes can get incredibly complicated and, what is worse, it is very difficult for employees to understand whether they have been treated fairly or not. “Where you are dealing with something like a car or holiday, it is pretty obvious if you are sitting next to someone with 28 days [holiday] when you are on 25 days and whether you are being treated fairly. It is much more difficult where someone is in a different pension scheme so the opportunities for disgruntlement are much greater.” Flexible benefits plans can be a good way to demonstrate equity among staff. “Employees are less likely to complain when [offered] the chance to structure their benefits package in their own way,” Edelsten adds.

Employee participation is another way to help minimise ill feeling. If employees feel something has been imposed on them, particularly if it is not entirely voluntary, they might not be satisfied. However, if given the opportunity to say what they would like in their package and given plenty of notice of upcoming changes, employers can perhaps reduce disgruntled challenges. Take to one side Another remuneration and benefits manager in the leisure sector says his organisation wasted a “tremendous amount of management time” dealing with complaints from staff seconded to the UK from other parts of the business overseas. “Expatriates arrive in this country with unrealistic expectations about what they can get [for their money]. We have a lot of difficulty managing their expectations about what they can realistically obtain in central London.

“We also have difficulties with what we call trailing spouses. We make some money available to help spouses retrain so that if they want to work in the UK, they can, and we get some very imaginative work scenarios,” he explains. One example involved a spouse who wanted to take guitar lessons so that she could then teach others, even though she wasn’t likely to meet the necessary standard by the time they left the UK. The manager admits his company doesn’t have a very good handle on the problem, adding that the winner is usually “whoever shouts the loudest”. Other common gripes typically involve situations where staff feel the package is not as generous as those offered by rival firms, or as those from a previous employer.

One area that Drewett receives queries about, particularly from staff who have been offered private medical cover elsewhere, is the £100 excess that employees have to pay on their first claim in any policy year. “[We explain that we] have actually opened it out to spouses, partners and children at no extra charge, however, we needed to put in an excess to control costs and give us that wider coverage.” Whether employers back down on an issue depends on the organisation’s philosophy. “Generally, the approach is not to let people [with issues] create disquiet among the wider population. This is often done by taking the employee to one side and laying down how things are going to be in a strong, but fair fashion,” says Redbourne’s Stewart. Case-by-case basis The HR manager from the food and drink sector says the company often uses discretion when deciding how to deal with a query. “With private medical insurance, people sometimes expect it to allow them to go private for absolutely everything.” However, he admits it can be hard when an employee or one of their family members is facing a serious illness and makes a request. “With these cases, you find yourself looking at each [one] on its merits.” He adds that bikes for work, and employees who want to change their flex options before the end of the 12-month election period, are other areas that are often queried. “Occasionally, people will say ‘I want this precise make and model and why aren’t you doing it on the scheme?’ We also get people who sign up for things in the flex scheme and then change their mind. We say ‘sorry but you have signed up for 12 months’ and some of them ring someone else [in the team] with a different story, so we do get people trying to be creative.”

Whatever the complaint, all benefits managers and experts are in agreement about one thing: it is essential to recognise that whatever an employee is complaining about, it is important to them. “We have seen examples where the disgruntled employee goes on for years writing to all the directors of the company and behaving in a way which externally looks a bit over the top, but for them it is something which is a big thing,” says Stewart. But benefits managers can console themselves with the following: while dealing with staff complaints can be tiresome, it is unlikely that you can please everyone all of the time. Or, as one benefits manager put it: “You look at the options and sometimes you have to say ‘Joe Bloggs is not going to be happy, but 95% of the staff will be’.

Case Study: GlaxoSmithKline

At GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the main bone of contention is mileage reimbursement rates. Although the company pays one pence per mile more than that recommended by HM Revenue & Customs, Harsha Modha, manager of benefits programmes, says staff still feel hard done by whenever fuel prices rise. “We don’t offer a traditional company car scheme. [Instead] we say ‘here is an amount of money and you can pick a car you want, but be aware that the reimbursement rates are set at these levels so if you choose a car that is a gas guzzler then you need to bear the cost’.” But she is aware that warnings often fall on deaf ears. “If someone’s heart is set on a particular car they aren’t going to be worried about the fuel consumption until [they get the bill].” When dealing with grievances, Modha believes it is important to recognise employees’ feelings. “Get them to tell you exactly why they feel the way they do. If you haven’t got the answers ready, don’t try to defend yourself. Go and source the information, come back and give them the facts. If it is something lacking in your policy then say ‘we are going to look at it’, or say ‘we are not doing it because of X, Y and Z’.”

How to deal with difficult employees

Sit down with the employee and try to understand what the problem is. Aim to get to the bottom of the employee’s complaint. Is it really about benefits? Or is something else bothering them? Before introducing or changing any benefits, think about the effect it will have. Aim to make as many employees as possible happy, but accept that some occasionally won’t be. Try not to give snap answers. Let employees know that you realise their query or complaint is important to them. Present your case in a reasoned fashion with examples. For instance, explain that while competitors offer a wider choice of company cars, your firm gives access to an all-employee share scheme. Don’t back down unless there are compelling reasons to do so. If you change the rules for one person, the policy will be harder to defend next time.