Career development for benefits professionals

Part of the benefits industry’s appeal is its diverse and challenging nature, spanning topics from payroll and pensions, to motivation schemes. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that newcomers to this profession and even those who have worked in reward for years want to continue learning in order to improve on the work they do, and maximise their potential for career progression. And they want it all without drowning in a sea of information.

When looking to improve their knowledge, benefits professionals have a number of options they can consider. Some may prefer to network with experts in the field as well as peers, while others depend on gaining qualifications and academic information gleaned from textbooks and the internet.

Martyn Sloman, adviser for learning, training and development at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), explains a key consideration for benefits professionals is to keep themselves interested in the industry and appear interesting to other people. In other words, benefits staff should constantly update their knowledge, as well as make themselves known to their peers.

Peter Reilly, director of HR research and consultancy at the Institute for Employment Studies, explains: “The reward area does have an underpinning academic side but it is a practical subject in my view. People who have got some understanding of psychology and economics will have an advantage but it’s the ability to put that into place in a practical way [that is important].”

A degree in HR or management can be advantageous, but will not always equip individuals with the specific skills needed to work in reward. The benefits market is subject to rapid evolution in terms of legislative change and almost constant advancements in best practice strategy.

Textbooks can be a useful starting point for explaining some of the theories and ideas in HR and benefits management. But however good they are, they will not cover everything about benefits. Rajeshree Bhovan, former reward and benefits manager at retail firm BHS, says: “No textbook is the bible. There is no book you can use for your whole career. In this area, it doesn’t really work that way.”

Books that provide up-to-date practical advice on benefits may be few and far between, so practitioners may be advised to turn to specialist websites and magazines to supplement their knowledge, says Matt Brooks, group manager of the reward team at HR recruitment firm Frazer Jones. This way, they can access comment from thinkers on the ground who are reacting to current market changes.

For staff who are working in a generalist HR or administrative position, an industry-based course may provide them with the knowledge required to move into a more specialised role. Benefits staff may also appreciate the opportunity to study for a professional qualification as it can help them with the challenge of keeping their knowledge up to date, as well as learning new techniques and ideas.

The CIPD, for example, runs two-day long courses on benefits, pensions and share schemes, reward in context, base and variable pay, and developing a reward strategy. It also runs a year-long course that results in an Advanced Certificate in Reward Management that HR professionals can study for part-time. This is suited to benefits professionals who want to become better equipped to work in pay and reward.

Some individual perks such as share schemes and pensions can also prove to be complex fields. Industry bodies such as the Pensions Management Institute and professional services firms provide courses. For example, law firm Linklaters has developed a certificate in employee share plans in conjunction with the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators.

Additional advantages of attending a professional course such as these, means that not only can benefits professionals pick up useful information and expand their knowledge, but it opens a door for them to network with members of industry bodies such as the CIPD, as well as other benefits staff.

When it comes to sharing current thinking and practices on reward, networking can be invaluable. “In terms of career progression [networking] is absolutely vital and I don’t think that [professionals] can get anywhere without it,” explains Brooks.

By attending networking events, benefits professionals have the opportunity to meet with people who do a similar job. They can discuss challenges and achievements, and share advice. As well as learning from others in a neutral setting, benefits professionals can learn about projects that are coming up in other organisations and see what roles or opportunities might become available.

Networking events can range from conferences lasting several days, to low-key drinks evenings. Jo Rackham, head of reward and analysis at Whitbread, says: “I try to attend conferences or send someone from my team because there are so many people there and it’s always a really good place to pick up tips.”

Such events also enable benefits professionals to gain an insight into how perks are structured and implemented in other organisations, which may be outside of their own industry and experience.

According to Brooks, it is important for those attending such events to have some knowledge of the field before they go, so they can build on their understanding and also offer insights to others. “Although qualifications are less relevant than networking, someone can’t be invited into a network if they don’t have something to add to it, whether that comes from focused qualifications or by proof of ability by working their way up,” he says.

One final way of gaining wider benefits and reward experience for those interested in furthering their career in the field is to take on a series of short-term or interim contracts at a variety of organisations in order to learn how different benefits departments work, and to gain greater exposure. This way, benefits professionals can broaden their experience of different IT systems and resources, salary and bonus reviews, and benefits communication. Bhovan says: “When you check out the environment at different employers you get a lot more rounded experience than if you are stuck in one place.”

The best way for benefits staff to progress their career, therefore, is to keep on the ball using a variety of methods. As Rackham concludes: “Career progression is about reading, networking and hard graft.”

EB Reading list

  • A Handbook of Employee Reward Management and Practice (2nd edition) Michael Armstrong Published by Kogan Press. This contains information on how to achieve the aims of reward, as well as detailed chapters on specific benefits areas such as total reward, equal pay, recognition schemes, flexible benefits, share schemes and pensions.
  • The Carrot Principle Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton Published by Free Press This is a guide on how best to engage staff through employee recognition. The title comes from the idea of giving staff a tangible reward (carrot) rather than merely dangling a promise in front of them.
  • Reward Strategies: From Intent to Impact Duncan Brown Published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development This book outlines how to align an organisation’s reward strategies with overall business goals.
  • The HR Value Proposition David Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank Published by Harvard Business School Press This puts HR principles into the context of external business realities and discusses the HR practices that add the most value to businesses, as well as how to develop the roles of HR professionals.