Confessions of a benefits manager: The road to ruin

US headquarters do not understand company cars, so Candid has her work cut out selling her new vehicle policy for Europe

Big Bad Boss is dead against me looking at the car policy again. He says the US will never allow us to make any changes, so any analysis is pointless. You see, headquarters has already decreed that company cars are against all American ideals of independence and entrepreneurism. Big Bad Boss may well be right, but I have to try; I have 15 European HR managers giving me daily grief about the current policy.

I’d like to make something clear before I start: the pathetic excuse for a policy now in place was nothing to do with me. We did have a perfectly reasonable European policy, based on solid market data and sensible assumptions. Well, I think so at any rate – but then I created it. Then some idiot in head office was appointed chief of cost saving worldwide and was given a target of cutting £150 million in three months. Well, you can imagine the mayhem that ensued. Offices were closed and whole departments laid off. Later, as the target proved hard to reach, the hatchet moved nearer and nearer. Coffee machines were switched off, newspapers cancelled, printers taken away. Then, one dark Tuesday, someone on the team got hold of the European car policy and things got nasty.

Americans don’t understand company cars. For them, cars are a super-special perk to be offered only to visiting royalty and CEOs. Normal employees just don’t cut it, no matter how far they have to travel for work. You should have heard them when they found out some mere engineers had company cars. You could not have got a more extreme reaction if you had told them all our engineers had a private jet and a personal masseur on the company. Car keys were taken away and leases cancelled. Of course, you can’t just take people’s benefits away in Europe, and although we kept saying that, we had to take them away anyway and handle the legal consequences. Hysteria doesn’t describe the madness.

Luckily, at the time, we weren’t doing so well and, given the recession, people grumbled but only a couple made a fuss. Now it is a different story. My HR managers are constantly telling me of perfect candidates who wouldn’t join because we don’t offer a car. No surprises there.

Giving more cash

Worse, HR is matching candidates’ existing packages by giving more cash, which means the extra is subject to bonus and pension contributions. I tried to get HR to use car allowances to keep things clean, but the US are onto that too. Providing anything with the word ‘car’ in it is a sackable offence. We have to get this sorted out.

Three times I’ve presented data supporting status cars at manager level and job cars based on business miles, but it is as if our Higher Beings are all wearing earplugs.

But now I have a cunning plan. We recently carried out a worldwide benefits inventory and survey. I wasn’t all that keen at the time. I told the folks in the US that our benefits were pretty much on track apart from disability in the UK and cars across Europe, but no one would believe me. Instead, we paid Smarmy Consulting tens of thousands of dollars to tell us that our benefits are pretty much on market, apart from disability in the UK and, by the way, cars are below market across Europe. Well, who would have thought it?

So, this study could be the chance I need. I put together a presentation based on the latest data and put it to the European HR team. There is no point trying to get something signed off in headquarters that they all hate over here; the point of the exercise is to get them off my back about it.

If only it were that simple. Even though several HR managers have been pressing me for a policy based on local market data, rather than some narrow-minded new-world idea of what benefits should be about, now that I give them a new policy, they want something else. National characters come out: Italy wants everyone to drive
the same car across Europe, France just wants to argue about it for a bit, the UK wants flexibility, yet Germany wants the rules to be totally fixed with absolutely no flexibility, because flexibility just gives everyone something to argue about. I am never going to please everyone at this rate.

Incorporating as much feedback as I can, I redo the presentation for the folks in the US. Just as I am making the finishing touches, I get a call from one of our Higher Beings. Oh dear. I know, from the promotion request I processed for him, that this guy has just been assigned to the cost-saving hatchet team and has been given the remit to save thousands in Europe. And he wants to ask me about my new car policy. Yikes. I’m sure he will want to cut my proposals. And if he makes a fuss about the policy, I’ll never get it approved.

How wrong can you be? After I had launched into a long spiel about market data comparisons and eligibility levels based on benchmark jobs, he cuts in to ask his key question. All he wants to know is: will the new budgets allow him to get an Audi A4 as his next company car?

So much for European cost savings.

Next time…Candid presents to the management committee.

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