Confessions of a benefits manager: The trials and tribulations of voluntary benefits


Big Bad Boss has leapt on another bandwagon. I just wish he would have his own ideas rather than simply recycling someone else’s. This week it seems his mantra is voluntary benefits and I know exactly where it originated. There’s a new Higher Being spreading discontent among the executive management team.

Gordon has annoyed me already by being a total diva over his offer. He has come to us from the fintech division of a Big Name organisation, and it seems it treated him like royalty over there. Gordon is a hard man to please; he rubbished our pension scheme, and rolled his eyes over the restricted shares on offer. Not content with our standard executive medical plan, he tried to get us to maintain a personal subscription with his previous provider. Honestly. Like we can maintain a special policy just for one guy. In the end, we had to throw the maximum ex-gratia payment at him just to get the wretched prima donna on board. These things rankle, I can tell you.

Since then, Gordon has been charging around the place beating his chest like a particularly self-important gorilla. He doesn’t intimidate me; I’ve seen his type before. These demanding Higher Beings never live up to their exorbitant reward packages, and consequently they don’t last long. But for now, he is still in the honeymoon period and he has everyone’s ears. He keeps bleating to the other Higher Beings about his last employer’s rose gold-plated voluntary benefits plan and now they all want one. To me, it sounds like the sort of plan that will be trending in the short run, but become dated before you know it.

Though no one asked him to, Gordon sent Big Bad Boss all the details of his old organisation’s benefit plans. It had a number of voluntary financial options, including financial advisor networks, savings plans, special mortgages and inheritance planning. It took care of everyone’s health with multiple discounted gym memberships, on-site physiotherapy and online counselling. It entertained its employees with special shopping accounts for gadgets and links with gaming providers. All this makes our miserly little dental plan look very dull.

The problem is that Big Bad Boss thinks ‘voluntary’ is a synonym for ‘free’. He believes I should just wave a wand and make the magic happen. I know that while our employees would pay the direct costs, there is still a massive overhead for us in terms of administration and management time. I could also argue that we’ve had more varied voluntary plans before and there was so little take up that we scaled them back. But I won’t. I am tired of being the voice of reason. I am sick of being the naysayer that no one wants to hear. Sometimes, there is a secret strength in giving in and going with the flow. Fine. Let’s do it.

All the same, I am not going to make any more work for myself than necessary. I look for a provider which can help us with several flavours of voluntary benefits at once. That way, I only have to deal with one; multiple providers mean multiple meetings and multiple headaches.

I also look for the vendor with the sexiest user interface. Perception is everything. For sure, Big Bad Boss will want to impress his new peer with app-based benefits selection and glossy infographics. They even have patronising explainer videos set up for staff that cannot or will not read. Better still, we can show how much fun it will be for our employees to spend their cash through pointless online gamification built into the interface. All this can’t fail to impress the Higher Beings, even Gordon. It is form over substance, but I really don’t care if it gets the monkey off my back.

Naturally, all this comes at a cost. Voluntary benefits are not self-funding at all, even though Big Bad Boss has been going around saying they are. We are still going to have to build an interface with our own benefits system and set up links with payroll. I am going to have to devote the next year of my life to this project. What seems so crazy is none of this is because we actually want to make life better for our employees. Engagement is just a buzzword to be tossed around like a rugby ball; it is the competitive sport of our leadership team.

I go through the vendor’s list of potential benefit options with Big Bad Boss, and he just keeps saying yes to them all. Privately, I think there is a big danger in overdoing it. We could easily overwhelm our employees with choice. I imagine the sales department spending so much time looking at benefit options on their phones that they don’t have time to get any new business. We could also devalue the core benefits that we do pay for. Surely, we should stick to doing a few things really well?

As the list of options Big Bad Boss wants to offer gets more absurd, I risk pointing out that certain benefits would be more likely to be appealing than others, especially given the demographics of our particular employees. In fact, shouldn’t we design a benefits system to attract our ideal employee rather than follow the latest fashion in perks? Big Bad Boss bats my suggestions away with a backhand. Whether or not it makes any sense, we are simply going to choose all the benefit options spouted by Gordon plus a few more edgy ones just to show him who is boss. Discounted robots anyone?

Next time… Candid gives her manager a performance review.