Reviewing Executive Benefits

The following are five key action steps in reviewing your executive benefits program:


Revisit your executive benefits philosophy as part of your executive compensation philosophy.


Ensure that your benefits consultant is independent.


Review executive benefit programs and severance arrangements in light of current, pending and potential legislation to assess the organization’s and individual executive’s compliance risk.


Conduct an independent, objective review of your executive benefits program.


Ensure that the results are understood in the context of total compensation.

Benefits programs are one of the first areas to suffer when organizations battle with managing expenses (attempting to avoid staff layoffs and pay cuts instead) as they are seen as a seemingly easy place from which to extract savings.

Whether this is a temporary reduction to retirement contributions or a longer-term change to the health insurance, the impact is immediate. However, though a more moderate effect, there are savings to be gained at many health care organizations without reducing benefits: vendor management, dependent care audits and program design changes can all be effective tools to reduce cost instead.

Nevertheless, while benefits still play an important part in the compensation package, it is evident that the landscape for providing executive benefits and perquisites is changing. Historically, executive benefits have been a way to provide less-visible forms of compensation. Due to Form 990 reporting requirements, and increased scrutiny of executive compensation, executive benefits and perquisites are now becoming very visible. As such, it is important, now more than ever, for compensation committees to review and understand the executive benefits and perquisites provided to their leadership team.

Many executive benefits have evolved to take advantage of loopholes; over time, the Internal Revenue Service has closed those loopholes. Tax rules have become more restrictive; the tax-mitigation strategies have become more complex. However, despite these patterns of opposition, in actuality any advantages gained from trying to circumvent the impact of the tax rules are quickly eroded by their complexity and the new risks that such strategies often create. Further, few executives have the time or tax background to fully understand their executive benefits, let alone board members who often only review benefits once a year, at most. Many organizations have already taken the step of eliminating or limiting perquisites to avoid such measures.

A once-popular design, flexible benefit programs are being replaced by simpler programs that executives can understand and appreciate. Performance issues, complexity and regulatory uncertainty have led to many executive benefits programs being redesigned in a way that meets both the organization’s and the executives’ needs. While new regulations are periodically proposed, organizations often find that changes to their executive benefits programs are needed, even before those changes are required by law. Organizations should review their executive benefits as part of their total compensation strategy to ensure that the benefits program supports the organizational objectives.

An independent review of benefits is essential and is a best practice in governance. Typically, the depth of review and industry expertise needed requires the use of an outside consultant. However, many consultants also sell insurance, and this can be a conflict of interest if the consultant’s revenue is directly affected by the new benefits design. With an independent consultant, the organization can be sure that the recommended benefits program design is best for the organization, not what generates the most income for the consultant.

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