Confessions of a benefits manager: Network premiere

Candid sets up a networking group to share information and avoid using consultants, but an American contact is hard to convince

If Big Bad Boss asks me what our competitors are doing one more time, I think I am going to scream. It doesn’t matter what industry-specific market data I come up with, all he wants to know is what does BigAndNasty Incorporated offer its staff. I can understand why, because BigAndNasty is stealing all our best techies. It is hoovering our staff up like crumbs, despite the economic downturn. The Higher Beings (our management committee) are getting a bit jumpy, for without our techies, we are merely a shelf company. Techies are the only people who actually do anything to bring money in here.

I know there is no point talking to Smarmy Consulting about sector-specific market data; we are far too specialised. Long ago, I went to it with a list of comparator companies and paid it to subdivide its market data for us. It couldn’t have cost Smarmy any more than it took to pay someone to select a filter on a report, but it charged us more than double for our usual data. That would have been fine, had there been any decent results. But ours is a fairly niche sector, and with such a small sample within the blunt tool of its survey, the resulting data was largely unusable. Big Bad Boss went ballistic at the money spent in vain. I am not doing that again.

So, I am going to take matters into my own hands and form my own networking group. I have business cards from a couple of HR folks in the sector, so I start with them. I can also track down a few more on LinkedIn, and send out an invitation for a call. The only problem is, I don’t have a contact at BigAndNasty. Luckily, one of the others does, and soon the date is set. In other times, I might have tried to gather us in a hotel room somewhere, but I know Big Bad Boss would never go for that. Besides, my contacts are spread across the world.

I am impressed everyone I invite turns up for the first call. I guess they are curious, if nothing else. We start with introductions. We are a bit of a diverse group. Notable among us is my friend Susie, a compensation and benefits specialist from one of our smaller competitors in the UK. There is a Dutch woman called Klara who covers all of HR for one of the larger firms, and a French guy, Jean-Paul, with an incredibly sexy voice, who is the benefits manager for another firm. And last, but not least, calling from the US is Boris, C&B director from BigAndNasty.

I explain my aims: I want to form a networking group so we can share information informally, rather than using large consulting firms.

Anti-competitive practices

Boris jumps straight in. He can’t possibly share data directly with competitors because there is US legislation that prohibits such anti-competitive practices. Oh, please. I can hear the other callers rolling their eyes. Klara pipes up: “But HR people share data all the time; that is how business works.” You can always rely on a Dutch girl to tell it like it is. Boris is having none of that. He may work for BigAndNasty but he is a good, clean American. I sense he feels he has joined some kind of terrorist outfit.

I try to calm him down. If we want to, we can hire a third party to summarise information so we don’t divulge our own specific data. Boris comes straight back. How would he know he could trust the third party if one of us initiated the work from them? Gosh, does he have something to hide or what? Jean-Paul says he knows an analyst who does such work very cheaply and has the legal paperwork in place to cover any anti-competitive concerns. He assures us we would be completely satisfied with the service. The way he says ‘completely satisfied’ in that beautiful voice makes me go all shivery. For a moment, I almost forget what the call is about.

I pull myself together and carry on. Ideally, I’d like us to share local practices, such as how to adapt to legislative changes. Even simple things like recent changes to age discrimination mean decisions about life insurance and pensions. It would be helpful to know how other firms are approaching this. I propose making this the subject of our next call, so we each have time to come prepared to talk about it. Boris doesn’t even like that. He knows everything he needs to know about age discrimination laws in the US.

The problem is, as the largest and most successful of our little band of companies, BigAndNasty has a lot less to gain from this network. The rest of us want to know what it is doing, but BigAndNasty probably isn’t all that bothered to know anything about our policies. Gulp.

I need to find a carrot to keep Boris in the game. I note he is the only one on the call who isn’t based in Europe. Another aspect of the group, I say, is that we can share information about our respective countries, thereby saving money on consulting fees. Susie joins in. She has done a lot of research on UK age discrimination and would be happy to share this on the next call. I point out that by sharing such information, the network can become a key cost-saving initiative for our companies. I’ve learnt that ‘cost-saving initiative’ is a magic phrase when speaking to Americans. Boris is quiet at last.

Next time… Candid reviews the company’s pension scheme administration.

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