Confessions of a benefits manage – If I had a pound for every call I’d had asking me why we don’t have an employee share plan, I could have retired to the south of France years ago.
Occasionally, I do make some vague attempt to raise the issue. However, when I talk to my colleagues in the US about getting an all-employee plan, they give all these waffling excuses about “overhang” (meaning, the vast number of shares already issued to our management team, the Higher Beings), and they talk about tax regulation blah-di-blah, but basically it boils down to this: they can’t be bothered.
On the whole, I’m with them on that. We had a sharesave scheme in my last company, and it was almost a full-time job just sending out reminders every quarter. And as my name went out on these reminders, employees seemed to think I was their financial adviser, tax accountant and general investment guru. They would ring me to ask how they should go about selling their shares, what would be the impact on their tax, how to fill in their tax returns, and endless other queries. Take a tip from one who knows: always get someone else to send out all-employee emails.
I shudder at the memory of that widespread programme, but it is not a whole lot better around here. Our share plan only covers the Higher Beings, but it is still a headache for me. I have about one hundred executives in Europe, and you can bet every single one of them will need help with their shares in one way or another.
Our share administration company doesn’t help. In fact, I would be prepared to bet they create as many queries as they handle. For example, in order to access their online system you have to go through a vetting process worthy of MI5. Most of our executives have the attention span of a goldfish, so expecting them to go through a five-screen log-in process with two IDs and two passwords is just asking for trouble.
My colleagues in the US don’t help. They send out these stupid emails telling people that their log-in ID is “000” followed by their employee number. It sounds simple enough to follow, but we don’t ever tell people their employee number, so I have 100 executives ringing me to ask what it is. Gah.
And then there is the W-8BEN form. This delightful document is required by the US Tax Authorities every year for any foreign shareholders. Not content with asking for a log-in ID, which everyone will have by now forgotten, this form also asks for a PUID number, a three-digit company number, and a foreign tax ID number. No one seems to know what any of these numbers are, not the stock administration company that sends out the form, nor my colleagues in the West who endorse it, and certainly not anyone asked to fill it in, but still they send it out and wait for the phone to ring. My phone, that is.
If one such form wasn’t enough, they also send out a zippy little W-9 form too. Actually, this one only has to be filled in if you are from the US, but still the administration company sends it to all our European executives, just to set my phone buzzing again. I have pointed out to them that they could easily identify the country of origin because we provide them with that data, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. The forms just keep coming.
You have to wonder why we bother. There was a time when shares were a sexy benefit. You could give someone a thousand share options and make them feel really important. In those days, people who had shares could stride about in pin-striped suits and braces, shouting “sell” into rather large mobile phones. But not now. Nobody even looks at the share price any more. Last year’s share options are so far underwater they have grown fins.
The stories told about shares always remind me of that fairy-tale: The Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone goes around saying that, in the long term, shares are a much better investment than other options. You will hear this from financial advisers, employee benefits consultants, and anyone else who has a positive story to tell. And we all nod as we look at their carefully-crafted, yet unintelligible graphs, and no one is brave enough to query the truth of that statement. And yet, shares have not been a good investment for most people in the last few years.
Shares have not performed as well as in previous years. If you point this out, though, advisers will smugly remind you that they already told you that “share prices can go down as well as up”. But they haven’t gone up, have they? They have just gone down. Horribly, horribly down.
So, we have started giving people restricted stock instead, on the basis that free shares are still a benefit no matter how low the share price is. Ye-es, but free shares worth a few pence aren’t exactly going to change anyone’s lifestyle, are they? And it complicates things enormously given that most countries will tax the benefit at grant, even though the poor executive won’t see a penny for several years. In fact, I would imagine, by the time you have added in the time the executives have had to spend signing agreements, filling in forms, chasing around for secret ID numbers, logging into administration systems, and finally filling in tax returns, their life would have been significantly richer without shares. Mine certainly would.
n Next time…Candid participates in a survey or two